NAACP to gather data on sludge

The Baltimore NAACP will meet next week to consider whether any health risks were posed eight years ago when researchers from the Kennedy Krieger Institute and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health spread sludge on several city residential properties.

The civil rights group plans to use the session to gather information to prepare questions for both institutions about a lead-abatement study published in 2005, said Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., president of the Baltimore chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.


The study involved spreading compost made from human and industrial wastes on nine yards in a predominantly poor, black East Baltimore neighborhood to see whether it reduced the risks of exposure to lead in the soil.

The questions will focus on the researchers' methods and whether they increased risks of adverse health effects to people living in the homes, Cheatham said.


"We just have a lot of questions. No allegations and no charges, just a lot of questions," Cheatham said.

Officials from both institutions met with NAACP officials at the city branch office May 24 to discuss the study, Cheatham said. He described that session as amicable, but said many basic questions about the study - such as the street where the work was conducted and whether any children lived in the homes - went unanswered.

"It was like each time we asked a question, it opened up a Pandora's box," Cheatham said.

Tim Parsons, a spokesman for the Bloomberg School of Public Health, said the institutions have promised to continue communicating with the NAACP and will do their best to respond to its questions.

"We agreed to communicate with them as best we can and will do our best to answer any questions, when we receive them," said Parsons, who said he was designated to speak for Kennedy Krieger.

Officials at both institutions have emphasized that community leaders were consulted before the study, that participants were fully informed and that compost material is safe and widely used. Officials said there was no reason to monitor the health of residents because the compost material is approved for home use, is widely used on homes and lawns and does not pose a health risk.

"There was no reason to suspect that this product would cause a health problem," Parsons said.

Most of the work on the study was conducted in 2000, when lead poisoning was an even more severe problem in Baltimore, officials said. Work at Kennedy Krieger and Bloomberg has been instrumental in reducing the incidence of lead poisoning over the past decade, they said.


Cheatham agreed with that assessment yesterday, but said the issue still needs probing.

"Hopkins has done some outstanding work in this community, and Kennedy Krieger, too, but we cannot turn our heads if there are questions about health risks from some of the work that they did," he said.

Reports of the study caused an outcry in April when the Associated Press published an article that appeared in The Sun and elsewhere, emphasizing the risks posed by spreading sludge. The article prompted calls for congressional hearings about the Baltimore study.

In a follow-up article last week, an AP senior managing editor acknowledged that the original story "was unbalanced, and it created a distorted impression about the level of risk in the Baltimore experiment."

The follow-up pointed out that there are two kinds of commercial compost: Type A, which is heat-cured in a kind of pasteurization process; and Type B, which is less sanitary, restricted to agricultural uses and has generated environmental concerns. In 2002, a National Academy of Sciences - cited in the original AP story - criticized how the EPA developed its type B regulations.

But the Hopkins researchers used Type A compost, which contains wood chips and sawdust and is approved by federal and state environmental agencies for unlimited use by homeowners. It has been spread for decades around homes, golf courses, lawns and such public places as Camden Yards and the park in front of the White House.


Rep. Elijah E. Cummings reiterated yesterday his calls for a hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform's subcommittee on domestic policy. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said he has spoken with officials at Hopkins and Kennedy Krieger but still questions why people living in the homes didn't have their health monitored. He thinks a hearing would "clear the air."

"Deep in my heart, I think their intentions were good. But I think that maybe the methodology was not what it should have been," Cummings said.