'Is it even safe to live here?'

The Baltimore Sun

Harvey Leichling watched his 12-year-old son scramble after a baseball under a locked gate that barred the way into a city park and the ball fields on the other side.

"Hey," shouted Leichling, "get out of there!" He pointed to a sign on the park's chain link fence: "Closed to All Users by Authority of the Baltimore City Health Department."

Leichling and his family have lived beside Swann Park in South Baltimore for almost two decades, but lately he has regarded their oasis of green in a new way - not as a refuge from their industrial neighborhood but as a potential menace to himself and the people he loves, like his son, Cory. "We used to picnic down there in the park, play football, go fishing and eat crabs out of the river. We'd lay in the grass and watch the fireworks," said the 47-year-old airplane parts inspector. "Now what I want to know is, is it even safe enough to live here?"

He and his neighbors began raising that question last month after the city closed the popular park because tests showed arsenic in the soil at more than 100 times safe levels.

The city's health commissioner said the carcinogen came from an Allied Chemical pesticide plant next to the park. After the DDT factory was closed in 1976 and later demolished, the site was covered in clay and asphalt, and a state cleanup task force declared the whole area safe.

But that might not have been true. Nobody had ever bothered to remove the arsenic from the park, though records show that both Allied and the government knew the cancer-causing agent remained in the soil.

Now, Leichling and some of his current and former neighbors wonder what it means that the 11 acres of grass that served as a front yard for their children has been contaminated for decades.

They are considering family illnesses in a new light. Were maladies such as nosebleeds, headaches and nausea - even lung cancer deaths - caused by something harmful in Swann Park?

No one can answer those questions yet, but they might soon. Investigators with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services are studying whether neighbors faced health risks because of the arsenic-tainted soil in the park. A report is due next month.

High cancer zone

What has been known for at least a quarter-century is that arsenic dust in the air from the factory on Race Street was deadly - not only for workers but for nearby residents as well. Arsenic, long known as a poison, was also one of the first elements discovered by doctors to cause cancer, in the 1820s.

A pair of studies by Johns Hopkins School of Public Health researchers, published not long after the Allied plant's closing, found that workers and neighbors living near the South Baltimore factory in the 1960s and 1970s were dying of lung cancer at about three times the normal rates.

The high cancer zone was within a half-mile of the park, which is south and west of Federal Hill, beside the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

In addition to developing deadly tumors, laborers at the plant suffered from rashes, nosebleeds, nausea, headaches and painful sensations of pins and needles in their feet.

The matter that researchers are exploring is whether playing on tainted ball fields after the factory closed could have kicked up enough arsenic dust to be dangerous.

"I think its pretty clear that the chemicals used in that plant were significant toxins," said the city's health commissioner, Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein. "The question is what kind of risk, if any, is coming from the park."

The city closed the park April 19 after Allied's successor, Honeywell International, turned over to the state internal documents during negotiations over fixing the leaky asphalt cap covering the factory site. Company tests from 1976 showed high arsenic levels in the park. Retesting last month found arsenic levels remained as high as 2,200 parts per million - more than 100 times the normal cleanup standard.

Kids played there

The failure to clean up the park occurred despite a study by Dr. Genevieve Matanoski of the Hopkins School of Public Health that found high arsenic levels not only in the park but also along the train lines that led through the neighborhood and into the plant.

Matanoski concluded that arsenic dust drifting from the plant and its train cars caused lung cancer deaths at three times the expected rate in the neighborhood. "There may still be lung cancers happening now from what happened in the past," Matanoski said this month.

Although her study was published in a scientific journal in 1981 and presented to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, many residents and city officials said they had not heard about it until The Sun wrote about it in coverage of the city's closing of Swann Park.

"I'm very angry. I can't see why they didn't clean up the park, knowing there was a health hazard involved," said Pat Beckman, 64, who lives a few houses from the park. "And letting so many children play down there in the arsenic. How could they do that? That was Southern High School's home field."

One former resident troubled by the new disclosures is Judy Krzyzaniak, a 53-year-old secretary who grew up on South Hanover Street, about four blocks from the plant. She said two of her uncles worked at the pesticide factory and died of lung cancer. Both her parents were also dead of cancer by the time she was 32, although they never worked at the factory.

And about 1 1/2 years ago, her brother, Richard Schaffle, died of lung cancer at 59. She said that since the closing of Swann Park last month, she can't help but think about all the times her brother played baseball in the tainted fields.

"I wonder if it's going to happen to me, too. That's what scares me," said Krzyzaniak, who lives in Annapolis. "Had they done something to clean up the arsenic earlier, maybe some lives could have been saved."

Dr. John E. Steers, a surgeon from Westminster, is also reconsidering the deaths of family members. He said his wife, Charlotte E. Dunn Steers, and her twin brother, Thomas S. Dunn, grew up near the pesticide plant, frequently played in Swann Park and recently died of cancer. "I still have clippings of my wife's hair, and it would be interesting to test it to see if it had arsenic in it," said Steers.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has ordered the city, which owns the park, and Honeywell International, to devise a plan to clean up the park.

Honeywell, a large New Jersey-based defense contracting and manufacturing conglomerate, has legal responsibility for the pollutants of Allied, which ran chemical factories in Baltimore and across the nation. Allied Chemical in 1985 became AlliedSignal, which then acquired Honeywell in 1999, adopting the better-known name.

The company has promised to clean up the park under the supervision of the Maryland Department of the Environment.

The park remains closed today, with a chain looped across its entrance. A fence topped by barbed wire separates the shaggy ball fields from the cracked blacktop where the pesticide plant once stood.

For over a half-century, brick buildings looming behind the park's backstop churned out some of the most notorious pesticides in American history, including DDT (featured in Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring), kepone, lead arsenate, arsenic acid and 2,4-dicholorophenoxyacetic acid, a main component of Agent Orange.

The Middle Branch, which flows into the Chesapeake Bay, was a toilet for the plant's waste. "Dumping bags and drums of waste products from contaminated batches ... was common throughout the history of onsite chemical operations," according to a report in state files.

At its height, more than 100 people worked in 10 or so buildings at the Race Street complex. The largest was the hulking, three-story, brick "insecticide building," which stood alongside the "acid building" and the "arsenic shed."

Arsenic trioxide, a toxic white powder, rumbled in on rail cars and was unloaded next to the ball fields. Workers mixed the arsenic with nitric acid in metal hoppers to make pesticides.

No one knows for certain how the arsenic got into the park, but health experts have theorized that the toxic dust could have blown off the train cars or spilled out of the arsenic shed.

Edward "Pete" Abbott, a former plant supervisor, recalls mustard-colored smoke curling from the factory's smokestack and drifting over the park and neighborhood. When the wind shifted, workers scrambled for cover, knowing the breeze would burn their skin.

"It was more of a liquid type of material than a smoke, and when that liquid hit you, it felt like needles pricking you," said Abbott, 72. "I knew it was dangerous. And I find it hard to believe that people in authority didn't know it, too."

Nosebleeds, nausea

Abbott knows firsthand the dangers of arsenic dust. He said his father, who worked in the Allied factory for almost a quarter-century and got him his job there, died of leukemia and arsenic poisoning in 1968. Then the younger Abbott contracted lung cancer, and had his right lung removed in 1989.

He remembers his father's nosebleeds, nausea and the painful feeling like pins and needles in his feet. Medical journal articles have linked this nerve disorder in the feet - from which Pete Abbott also suffers - to chronic arsenic exposure.

"The whole damn place was cloudy with dust. DDT was scattered all over the damn place. You could see it leaking and coming out on the floors and everywhere," recalled Jackson McGee, who worked at the plant from 1960 to 1973.

Kurt Knell recalls walking through the pesticide plant when he was about 9 years old, delivering lunch with his brother to their father.

As they passed between the brick buildings, a billowing cloud of chemical dust rolled in front of them. "My brother put out his arm and said, 'That's far enough' - he didn't want us to go through that cloud," said Knell, now 55. "But my dad walked right through that dust like he did it every day," Knell said. "He wasn't wearing a mask. I never seen him wearing a mask."

About a year later, in 1961, Clarence Robert Knell, died of lung cancer at the age of 48.

Dr. Kiyohiko Mabuchi, then a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins, surveyed the health of 1,393 plant workers from 1946 to 1977 and found that those who worked there for more than a year died of lung cancer at a rate about three times higher than normal.

"Anyone who had any time there was dying," said Andrew Barrett, a factory worker in the late 1960s. "It was like the chemicals was eating them alive."

The factory shut down in 1976 after a disaster at the pesticide plant of an Allied contractor in Hopewell, Va. Dozens of workers were hospitalized with nerve disorders, and tons of kepone were flushed into the James River, forcing the state to close it to fishing for years. Kepone had also been processed at the Baltimore plant.

The Baltimore factory was demolished in the late 1970s to make way for the construction of Interstate 95 on risers high over the neighborhood. The city bought the site in 1977 and covered the 10 acres of land - contaminated with arsenic, kepone, DDT, lead, and chromium (another carcinogen) - with a layer of asphalt and clay.

After the manufacturing stopped, 13 former workers sued Allied and its chemical suppliers in federal court, claiming that the company "failed to design and maintain the plant in safe conditions." Some of the plaintiffs settled out of court for amounts from $2,500 to $125,000, according to a plant union leader.

Swann Park closed for a few weeks in 1976 but reopened after it was resodded. The park was declared safe by a local, state and federal cleanup committee, the Kepone Task Force, which reported to Gov. Marvin Mandel.

Though the government officials allowed children back into the park, they knew the arsenic remained there, according to task force records. "City is in the initial stages of recommended plowing, sodding, etc.," read notes on a "Swann Park Rehabilitation" meeting on May 13, 1976. "May be some possibility of limited migration of arsenic upward, downward or into grass."

'Probably all around'

Meanwhile, next door, the asphalt cap over the factory site cracked by 1983, and the site might have leaked pollutants, according to city and state officials.

Harvey Leichling and other neighbors wonder if poisons seeped not only into the river but also into homes and yards in their low-lying community. He described how rain floods the park and factory site, flushing muck into people's basements and back yards.

As his son, Cory, 12, grabbed his baseball from the weeds of the overgrown park and ran back toward his father, Leichling pondered his boy's odd illnesses. He said no one has been able to explain the child's frequent nosebleeds, headaches and nausea.

Leichling said his other son, Ryan, 16, has been hospitalized several times with breathing problems. Leichling himself has been beset by rashes and tingling in his feet. He can't help but wonder if his family's health is related to the pollutants.

"I bet if they tested the yards of these homes here, they'd find arsenic here, too," Leichling said, kicking at a tuft of weeds sprouting from the cracked concrete in front of his rowhouse. "And not just arsenic, but also chromium, kepone and everything else from that plant. It's probably all around this whole area."


About arsenic

What is arsenic?

Arsenic is an element in the earth that has been used as a poison, a pesticide and, in small doses, a medication.

When is it dangerous?

Drinking or eating arsenic in high doses can result in nausea, vomiting, abnormal heart rhythms, painful sensations like "pins and needles" in the feet and hands, and death. Breathing arsenic dust over a long time is known to cause lung cancer. It is unclear whether merely touching arsenic in dirt is a health risk.

Why is arsenic in Swann Park?

Next to the park, a pesticide factory until 1976 used arsenic dust in the manufacture of pesticides, such as lead arsenate and arsenic acid. The arsenic dust might have blown off train cars and into the park, or out of an arsenic storage shed next to the park.

For more information, visit the Baltimore City Health Department's Web site: http:--swannpark.blogspot.com/

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad