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Crowd asks about testing park users for arsenic levels

The Baltimore Sun

As assessments and plans for a clean-up begin on the arsenic contamination at South Baltimore's Swann Park, the city health commissioner said last night that testing of people who might have been exposed to the poisonous chemical remains undecided.

Responding to questions at a community meeting last night, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein said there will not be mass urine testing.

"It doesn't match up with the timeline of exposure," said Sharfstein, the commissioner, citing conversations he has had with more than 10 experts in the field who advised that urine testing must be completed within 24 hours of exposure. "It was recommended by no one in the field as being helpful."

Sharfstein added that discussion is continuing on whether hair and fingernail testing would be effective in assessing exposure to arsenic in the park - located next to an industrial site where the former Allied Chemical Corp. used the chemical to make pesticides until 1976. The company merged in 1999 with Honeywell International Inc., which recently disclosed findings of arsenic levels more than 100 times higher than is considered safe.

Lora Siegmann Werner, a representative of the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, attended last night's meeting at Digital Harbor High School - the second held this week - to hear from people about their exposure to the park's soil. The agency is preparing a health assessment and said a preliminary report could be completed in about a month.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has ordered the city and Honeywell to create a plan for an investigation into the contamination at both the park and the old Allied site on nearby Race Street.

"Honeywell is committed to working expeditiously to complete the investigation and additional remediation of Swann Park in full cooperation with the city of Baltimore and the Maryland Department of the Environment," said Victoria Streitfeld, a spokeswoman for Honeywell.

Of the about 25 people who attended the meeting - a mix of Digital Harbor student athletes who have used the park for practices and games, and residents who use the space recreationally - many seemed dissatisfied that they would not be tested.

"It would be nice to come to a meeting where they had answers," said Lisa Martin, the athletic director at Digital Harbor.

"We're still not getting any answers," said Harvey Leichling, who lives near the park. "They're sweeping this under the rug. I spoke to a toxicologist yesterday and she said, 'Get out - if it was me and my family, I would.' I just want honest answers. If it's safe to live there, then fine. If it's not, I want out."

Leichling said he plans to get himself and his two sons tested.

James R. Fox, a lawyer in the firm of Peter G. Angelos, also attended the meeting.

"I can say on the record that we have been contacted by people in the community who are concerned about the possibility of arsenic exposure, and we are concerned, too," Fox said.

Tests by Honeywell this month, which were turned over to the state last Thursday, showed arsenic levels of up to 2,200 parts per million.

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