Could exposure to arsenic contribute to medical conditions such as chronic asthma, bronchitis or sleep apnea? Could high school football players pounding on contaminated dirt six days a week in practice, then eating sunflower seeds out of their dirty hands, have ingested enough of the poisonous chemical to worry about unforeseen health consequences?
Those were some of the questions raised yesterday afternoon at Digital Harbor High School, where about 25 people attended an informational meeting on the closing of South Baltimore's Swann Park because of arsenic contamination in the soil.
Swann Park, which the city Health Department closed Thursday, sits next to an industrial site where the former Allied Chemical Corp. used arsenic to manufacture pesticides before it closed in 1976. The company merged in 1999 with Honeywell, which disclosed the recent findings of arsenic levels more than 100 times higher than considered safe.
Officials including Mayor Sheila Dixon and the city health commissioner, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, attempted to reassure the audience of neighborhood residents and representatives from the school - which has for decades held many of its sports teams' home games and practices on the field at Swann Park - that answers will come from a three-pronged investigation into the possible health implications, environmental consequences and the nondisclosure of the contamination for more than 30 years.
"We need to get to the bottom of it," said Dixon, who added that environmental tests would be performed on other city parks as a safeguard.
Dixon would not rule out future legal action on behalf of the city.
Tanya Smith's concerns were more immediate. For the past four years, the baseball diamond at Swann Park has served as the grounds for practice and games for her son, John Smith III, captain of the baseball team at Digital Harbor.
She said her son practiced at the park the day before the city closed it; she would like him to be tested for arsenic.
"They play hard. They eat dirt. And they get cut constantly. ... And the cleats are bogged down with soil, so it is a great concern for all of us," she said.
The city has asked an agency of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to investigate risks posed by the arsenic. Tests by Honeywell this month, and turned over to the state April 19, showed arsenic levels of up to 2,200 parts per million.
The park was closed in 1976 when the pesticide kepone, manufactured by Allied, was found in the soil. But a panel of federal, state and local health officials allowed the park to be reopened that year - even though tests showed high levels of arsenic there.
Experts say arsenic can cause cancer and lower IQs in children with prolonged exposure, and kepone is a toxic nerve-damaging agent.
The testing of the park's soil this month was prompted by 31-year-old Allied company reports turned over to the state this month as part of negotiations for a new cleanup of the factory site on nearby Race Street.
The confidential internal reports show that Allied tested the park in 1976 and found arsenic levels of up to 6,600 parts per million behind home plate of a baseball diamond. But according to a memo obtained by The Sun, the state health director at the time wanted discussions about the pollution kept quiet.
Honeywell, which merged with Allied's successor in 1999, turned over Allied's documents about the pollution site to the state and city April 4.
Allied Chemical manufactured pesticides at 2000 Race St., just north of Swann Park and beside the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, from the 1930s until 1976. In 1958, it dumped 200 tons of chromium - carcinogenic waste from a chrome plant near Fells Point - next to the park. The Race Street factory closed in 1976, and the city bought the land in 1977 to facilitate construction overhead of Interstate 95.
Sandra Meyers lived at 213 W. Macomb St., adjacent to the park, from 1987 to 1999 and said she remembers receiving letters from the Environmental Protection Agency about every two years alerting residents that soil tests were being performed, and if anything turned up, the federal agency would let them know.
Meyers, attending the meeting, said she called the EPA once about 12 years ago, when her son, Ryan, was 4 and doctors said his chronic asthma and bronchitis might be "environment-related."
"We never heard back from them," Meyers said. "The flier said we could be contacted if there was any problem, and we were never contacted, so I thought everything was OK."