Maryland's environmental agency has discovered high levels of arsenic in the yards of homes near a contaminated park in South Baltimore and has ordered a company to remove the poison.
The arsenic dust, a carcinogen linked to elevated lung cancer rates, is believed to have drifted from a long-closed Allied Chemical pesticide factory into nearby patios and backyards, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The toxic dust was found earlier in Swann Park next to the former plant. The park was often used by children's sports leagues until it was closed in April because its ballfields had arsenic levels 100 times safe levels.
The factory at 2000 Race St. manufactured such notorious pesticides as DDT, kepone and a main ingredient of Agent Orange before closing in 1976 and being demolished. The site was covered in clay and asphalt, but nobody ever cleaned the contaminants from Swann Park or the neighborhood.
Horacio Tablada, director of waste management at the Maryland Department of the Environment, said yesterday that his agency has ordered New Jersey-based Honeywell International, which inherited responsibility after merging with Allied, to dig the arsenic out of seven backyards near the park on McComas Street.
The agency tested three yards on May 29 in a block-long stretch of rowhouses leading up to the park. It found elevated arsenic levels in all three - suggesting the properties of all seven connected homes on the block might be contaminated, Tablada said.
"The people in the area raised a concern, and it was a valid concern," Tablada said. "We said we need a quick remedy here, and so we contacted Honeywell by phone on Friday, and then we contacted the residents today," he said yesterday.
Honeywell has promised to remove the top three inches of soil in the yards and then cover the ground with concrete or soil, Honeywell spokeswoman Victoria Streitfeld said in a written statement.
"Honeywell will pay for all costs of remediation and restoration, including the planting of grass and other landscaping," Streitfeld said. "Protecting the community's health and safety during this remediation is our top priority."
Residents of the isolated industrial neighborhood, which sits near a concrete plant and an Interstate 95 overpass southwest of Federal Hill, said building new patios wouldn't be enough.
Some said they are frustrated that Allied, which acquired Honeywell in 1999 and then adopted its better-known name, performed secret tests that showed elevated arsenic levels in the park in 1976, but has done nothing to clean up the area until now.
The existence of these internal documents was revealed in April, when Honeywell turned them over to the MDE during negotiations over repairs to the asphalt cap over the factory site, which has been leaking. The environment agency ordered Honeywell in April to clean up the park.
Studies by researchers at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, published in 1980 and 1981, concluded that arsenic dust from the plant's operation caused lung cancer at three times the normal rates in both workers and neighborhood residents.
McComas Street residents who got letters yesterday notifying them of the arsenic in their yards were upset. "I'm angry. If we've got arsenic dust in our yards, aren't we breathing that?" asked Harvey Leichling, 47, who lives with sons ages 12 and 17.
He said he's worried that his older son's chronic breathing problems, his younger child's frequent nosebleeds and his own rashes and painful sensations of pins and needles in his feet could have been caused by the carcinogenic dust.
"They think putting in a new yard will solve everything?" Leichling asked. He pointed to the gas grill in his weedy concrete slab and dirt backyard, which measures about 16 feet by 12 feet.
"If it's in my backyard, I know it's also got to be in my basement and all over the whole neighborhood," said Leichling, an airplane parts inspector who has rented on the street for 18 years. "Would you like to live in a house knowing it's contaminated?"
He suggested that Honeywell should move him and his children to a safer location.
Baltimore's health commissioner, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, said more should be known about the potential health impact on local residents on Thursday, when investigators with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services release a report on the arsenic in Swann Park.
Sharfstein said "it's an excellent question" whether the state should test the yards of more homes in the area near the factory site. "It's an important question how far the airborne exposure spread," Sharfstein said.
Pat Beckman, 64, who owns a rowhouse at 207 McComas St., pointed to the porch furniture and grill in her backyard, where she celebrated her husband's birthday on Sunday night with her son and daughter-in-law and their five children, ages 3 to 13.
Yesterday, she learned the arsenic level in the dirt under their feet was at 49.5 parts per million - more than double the 20 ppm level at which cleanup is typically required. Her neighbors' yards registered even higher - 177 ppm and 75 ppm.
"I want the air quality tested, now," Bechman said. "I am concerned that there could be dust blowing up here with arsenic in it, and that could be a major factor in the respiratory problems in the neighborhood."
Ed White, a 56-year-old salesman who lives a few doors down, said he wonders if the deaths of an uncle, an aunt and his wife all could have been related to the pesticide plant.
"When I bought this home 20 years ago, nobody told me about this arsenic," said White. "I recently got my home appraised for over $200,000. But who would want to buy it now?"
The city's health department is working with the MDE on a study to determine if there are more parks and neighborhoods surrounding former industrial sites that could harbor hidden contaminants, Sharfstein said.
"We are reviewing all the different sites around the city, and seeing if there are any potential Swann Park-like situations," he said.
Sharfstein said he's glad the state is being aggressive about testing. He said the MDE listened to the demands of McComas Street residents, who asked to have their yards investigated during a May 21 public hearing.