Potentially Dangerous Sludge Used In Lead Poisoning Test
[Rachel's Introduction: In the late 1990s, government-funded studies in poor, black neighborhoods in Baltimore and East St. Louis, Ill., traded food coupons and free lawns in exchange for permission to spread sewage sludge on their yards.]
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Scientists conducting research supported by federal grants spread sewage sludge made from human and industrial wastes on yards in poor, black neighborhoods to test whether the fertilizer could protect children in the area from lead poisoning in the soil. Families in the areas were assured the sludge was safe and were never told about its potentially harmful ingredients.

In the late 1990s, government-funded studies in poor, black neighborhoods in Baltimore and East St. Louis, Ill., traded food coupons and free lawns in exchange for permission to spread sewage sludge on their yards. Researchers said the sludge helped put children less at risk of brain damage from lead, a highly toxic element once used in gasoline and paint that children could ingest as it flaked off walls in their houses.

The researchers said phosphate and iron in the sludge could bind to lead and other hazardous metals, allowing the combination to pass safely through a child's body if eaten.

Rufus Chaney, an Agriculture Department research agronomist who co- wrote the study that took place in Baltimore, said the researchers told the families about lead hazards and told the people that the sludge, Orgro fertilizer, was store-bought and safe. He said the researchers did not, however, inform the families about some studies that indicate safety disputes and health complaints over sludge.

No one can say exactly what is in sludge because of its dynamic nature, containing primarily human excrement but also anything else flushed down a toilet or poured into a drain: industrial chemicals, drugs, personal care products, flame retardants and other byproducts of modern civilization.

Soil chemist Murray McBride, director of the Cornell Waste Management Institute, said he agrees with the researchers about sludge's ability to bind with lead in soil, but he does not assume that it is necessarily safe.

"If you're not telling them what kinds of chemicals could be in there, how could they even make an informed decision? If you're telling them it's absolutely safe, then it's not ethical," McBride said. "In many relatively wealthy people's neighborhoods, I would think that people would research this a little and see a problem and raise a red flag."

Although government documents outlining the research grants do not list any names of individuals participating in the study for privacy concerns, it also does not indicate any medical follow-up.

"The study did not test children or other family members living in the homes," said Joann Rodgers, a spokeswoman for Johns Hopkins, which is affiliated with the Kennedy Krieger Institute that conducted the research in Baltimore (Heilprin/Vineys, AP/San Francisco Chronicle online, April 14 and Kevin S. Vineys, AP/San Francisco Chronicle online, April 13). -- KJH

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