Arsenic in Swann Park
How a beloved South Baltimore greenspace became one of America's 450,000 brownfields
As he sat at his kitchen table one August afternoon, Jim Steadman contemplated the cruel irony of his dilemma. For three decades, the respiratory therapist had made it his business to learn about the environment in which his patients lived and worked.
At Johns Hopkins Home Care, at Good Samaritan Hospital, and in homes across Baltimore, he used his clients' awareness of their physical surroundings as a window into their pulmonary difficulties.
Manipulating that environment, lessening or eliminating toxic exposures, making people aware of what they inhaled, what they ingested, and where, and when... to Jim Steadman, such thinking was as reflexive as, well, breathing. Each day he saw the results of living and working around industrial pollutants—asbestosis, cancer, asthma, allergies... Steadman believed that his accumulated knowledge and experience would keep him and his family safe, in a community free from environmental harm. For 17 years, from 1984 until they moved in 2001, he and his wife Sally raised their three children in what they believed to be just such a place—a spot they serendipitously discovered in an isolated South Baltimore blue-collar nook. It even had a pretty name:
Within yards of their front door was that lovely park, 11 open acres bordered by the Patapsco River. The ball fields drew high school athletes, weekend warriors and families like the Steadmans who lived in the half-dozen narrow row homes next to the park. The Steadman kids—Shannon, Samantha and Kevin—practically made the park a second home, slinging mudpies, playing pickup football, watching the stars. From their marble-stepped front stoop, as they enjoyed the sunsets over the fields, Jim and Sally had watched the kids and smiled: In their mind, Swann Park was heaven on earth.
Lynn Goldman had never heard of Swann Park before her phone rang one day last April. On the other end of the line was Baltimore City's health commissioner, Joshua Sharfstein, MD. He told her the news: Swann Park was being closed.
The state of Maryland had just received stunning, decades-old documents showing that Allied Chemical, which operated its South Baltimore Race Street insecticide plant right next to Swann Park from 1955 until the plant's closing in 1976, had known that their plastic containment bags and sheds containing arsenic had failed miserably, contaminating the park. The records included tests done and not disclosed by Allied in 1976 that showed Swann Park's soil arsenic levels were 100 times greater than federal health guidelines.
As Sharfstein talked, Goldman, chair of the School's Interdepartmental Program in Applied Public Health and a professor of Environmental Health Sciences, experienced deja vu. "This was like being in a time machine and going back 10, 20, 30 years. These were the kinds of situations I heard about in the early stages of my career," she says, recalling her experiences in the mid-1980s with a Central Valley, California, pesticide manufacturer whose antiquated containment facilities poisoned groundwater at a nearby school.
While the state was ordering Honeywell (which merged with Allied Chemical's successor, AlliedSignal in 1999) to conduct new testing to determine current arsenic levels, Sharfstein turned to Goldman, MD, MPH '81, and her colleagues for assistance. He asked Goldman and Thomas Burke, a professor of Health Policy and Management, to join a Swann Park Task Force to figure out exactly what had happened while the park was under Allied's control. A pediatrician and adjunct assistant professor in Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School, Sharfstein also sought out Epidemiology professor Genevieve Matanoski for her input on Swann Park: He called the Hopkins trio of experts his "dream team" of public health consultants.
For Matanoski, MD, DrPH, the new task force was both a flashback and a vindication of sorts. Back in 1976, Matanoski had done pioneering arsenic studies around the Allied plant, and found alarming rates of cancer in some of the adjacent neighborhoods. But her calls for more investigation went unheeded, as the Race Street plant was demolished in 1977 and paved over to make way for the I-95 overpass into Baltimore's new Fort McHenry tunnel. With the plant gone and the site capped by a layer of clay and asphalt, officials forgot about the site despite the fact that the neighborhood residents and possible contamination remained.
Now, Honeywell's disclosures—which came as the result of the Maryland Department of the Environment's stepped-up monitoring of defunct toxic sites—put the arsenic problem squarely into the public light.
As it turns out, Swann Park is just one of 450,000 "brownfields" in the United States. As defined by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), brownfields are properties whose "expansion, redevelopment or reuse... may be complicated by the presence or potential presence... of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant." Studies by Burke, PhD, MPH, and a dissertation by Jill Litt, PhD '00, estimate that in Baltimore alone 1,000 such brownfields exist—homage to the city's storied industrial past.
Allied Chemical itself can trace its lineage back to Isaac Tyson Jr., who in 1828 became the country's first commercial miner of chrome ore. From his first small plant in Baltimore that supplied chrome pigments to England, Tyson's Baltimore Chrome Works built a manufacturing empire.
In 1908, Baltimore Chrome Works became Mutual Chemical Company. Mutual operated the world's biggest bichromate factory on Block Street in East Baltimore (across town from where the Race Street plant would later be established next to Swann Park). Bichromate was used for everything from tanning leather to providing the pigment for the bright yellow paint that covers school buses and highways. But bichromate production was also extremely toxic—something few recognized at the time.
It would take an inquisitive Johns Hopkins industrial hygienist to reignite interest in the link. In 1950, Anna Baetjer, ScD '24, using Mutual's bichromate plant as part of her research, published a groundbreaking study that linked chromate exposure and workers' lung cancer. Her work in removing or lessening toxic exposures was the birth of modern-day industrial remediation.
By 1954, Mutual had been acquired by Allied Chromium and Dye. At its height, 200,000 tons of chromium chemicals came out of the Block Street plant each year. Baetjer's research culminated in a 1955 study on how chromium compounds interact with body tissues. These studies helped convince Allied to install filtration systems to protect workers from chromium dust.
Baetjer's work later proved vital when the 1960s environmental movement pushed the U.S. government to create the EPA to look at how industry disposed of toxic waste. Before the EPA, the industry had essentially policed itself. "The old approach would be dump [toxic waste] in the nearest water body without pre-treatment, dump it in the sewer system, or dump it out back," says Thomas Burke, director of the Johns Hopkins Risk Sciences and Public Policy Institute and a former environmental regulator who acquired experience in early hazardous waste investigations in New Jersey. As the EPA ramped up regulatory efforts in the 1970s, Burke says federal and state regulators turned to the work of Anna Baetjer and one of her occupational health protegees, Genevieve Matanoski, to get a handle on the exposure problem. Whereas Baetjer made her mark studying chromium toxicities at the Block Street plant, Matanoski looked at arsenic exposures emanating from Allied's Race Street facility next to Swann Park.
Matanoski's innovative 1976 report, "Pilot Study of Cancer Mortality near an Arsenical Pesticide Plant in Baltimore," was one of the first to show how disease levels could rise outside of a chemical facility. Originally, one of Matanoski's colleagues—noted Hopkins epidemiologist Abraham M. Lilienfeld—had been invited by Allied into their Race Street plant in the early 1970s because of concern over worker exposure to Kepone and arsenic. Kepone was a pesticide ingredient that had caused a brief scare and closing of adjacent Swann Park in May 1976. (A task force of city and state officials, working with what would later prove to be incomplete data supplied by Allied, deemed the park safe after the Baltimore City Health Department tested 19 nearby residents and baseball coaches who used the park. The blood tests showed "no detectable" Kepone levels.)
While Kepone—which had been linked to the destruction of oysters in the Chesapeake Bay—drew the attention of area officials, Lilienfeld was also concerned about the plant's use of arsenic. Lilienfeld told Matanoski that he had seen workers with nasal septum perforations, a possible sign of arsenic exposure. Matanoski investigated how arsenic traveled to and from the plant and saw dust billowing from hopper train cars as they were filled and emptied of chemicals. She theorized that the dust could be problematic to the nearby community. Over several years, Matanoski documented both arsenic soil levels and lung cancer deaths on a map of the area. What she found was alarming: a three- to four-fold increase in lung cancer among men living in the area nearest the plant. The lung cancer deaths clustered along the railroad tracks that carried chemicals—most notably arsenic—to and from the site. "The probability of [increased cancer] happening based on [random] statistics was 2 in 10,000," she says. Still, it's very difficult to link an exposure to a chronic disease, Matanoski says. "We very often cannot prove cause and effect," she says. "I can't tell you, 'Here's a case of lung cancer from arsenic exposure.' [But] the probability is very high."
Building on the results from the 1976 pilot study, Matanoski published a final study in 1981 in Environmental Research. It found that lung cancer death rates from 1970 to 1972 had jumped to "excessive" levels compared to 1960 cancer rates in the same neighborhoods closest to Allied's site. She also had presented her findings at a conference of the American Public Health Association and reported them to the EPA and state officials. An article on the pilot study was published on the Baltimore Sun's front page on February 15, 1976.
The study was revolutionary in its methods—applying industrial hygiene techniques to environmental exposure assessment—and its findings. "From what I remember of the time, most scientists would have been very resistant to the idea that environmental levels of arsenic, even under these conditions, would be associated with cancer," says Goldman. "What's interesting to me is that in many regards, this study is still state-of-the-art."
But this potent information was ignored, as the mindset of health officials at the time was to keep the lid on pollution issues. Consider that the Kepone Task Force's chairman, State Health Director Donald H. Noren, had, according to confidential Allied memos uncovered by the Baltimore Sun in 2007, allowed "no press or public attendance" at task force meetings, and had placed a gag order on members of the task force because "public release of the information could change the entire atmosphere."
Such approaches to environmental hazards didn't last long. Just two years later, Love Canal made nationwide headlines, illustrating the danger posed by polluted, defunct industrial sites. In 1978, a deluge of rain washed up steel drums filled with toxins from Hooker Chemical Company—waste that the company had buried when it left Niagara Falls back in 1953, after selling the site for a buck to the city. The barrels burst right in the heart of a new residential community called Love Canal. Birth defects and other illnesses suddenly appeared at an alarming rate.
"The [community's] school was on the hazardous waste dump," recalls Lynn Goldman. Over the years, Goldman has investigated dozens of industrial waste sites. She's worked as an epidemiologist and risk assessor for the California State Health Department and developed regulatory policy governing childhood environmental exposures while at the EPA. Still, Love Canal remains unforgettable. "It was one of the worst things I've ever seen in my career. We saw impacts on birth weights of kids and on their growth," she says.
Love Canal galvanized the nation, forcing policymakers to acknowledge that in order to move our cities forward, we first had to look back. Toxic wastes reached across both time and space, utilizing wind and water to move away from original production sites and into neighborhoods. These sites turned out to be more numerous than anyone could have guessed. Since President Jimmy Carter set up the EPA's 1980 Superfund clean-up program in the wake of Love Canal, the fund has remediated more than 750 hazardous waste sites.
Superfund administrators work closely with local health and science experts to determine which sites get placed on Superfund's National Priority List (NPL) for further investigation and remediation recommendations. (As of October 31, 2007, there were 1,245 active and 66 proposed sites on EPA's NPL list.) Much of the research is coordinated and funded through both the EPA and NIH's National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). A $5.2 million EPA grant to Hopkins in 2001 helped establish the EPA Center for Hazardous Substances in Urban Environments, while other funding created the NIEHS/EPA Children's Environmental Health Center under the auspices of the School's Department of Environmental Health Sciences. In the last few years, however, such funding has been cut. After Congress refused in 1996 to extend the tax on industry that created the Superfund, federal support began drying up and the states could not take up the slack, says Goldman.
Finding the cash for costly remediation is especially difficult. "There's a principle that the polluter pays" for testing and remediation, says Goldman. However, figuring out financial responsibility for NPL sites is complex and time consuming. (Many sites have been on the list for years.) Because so many brownfields sit in revitalized downtown areas, many states, including Maryland, are giving tax incentives to entice potential developers to pay for the clean up of contaminated sites.
Fortunately, most contaminants can be remediated. Ed Bouwer, an expert on waste site remediation and director of Hopkins' Hazardous Substances Research Center, says the three-pronged approach to remediation is to "eliminate the source, eliminate the pathway or eliminate the receptor." Since eliminating the receptor—people—isn't the long-term goal of most remediation efforts, the focus has to shift to the source and pathways. "It's pretty hard to completely eliminate the source," says Bouwer, PhD, noting the high cost of carting away acres of contaminated soil. "If there are some [small] 'hot spots'—localized areas where you can dig out a few truck- loads—that might make sense, but with the more diffuse or wider contamination, you cap it and bury it, entombed in a deep layer of clay or concrete to prevent leaching, and that way you prevent exposure and eliminate the pathway." However, as Genevieve Matanoski points out, capping doesn't eliminate the problem. "When you put concrete down, then what are you going to do with it?" she says, noting that a concrete expanse doesn't make an ideal park or site for housing. "The issue is always, can you make the site usable again?"
The goal, says Burke, is to create models that show "how we can redevelop these valuable pieces of real estate while at the same time making sure that any kind of environmental and public health hazards are appropriately evaluated and controlled."
The tragic part is that it's almost impossible for the little guy to get those wheels rolling by himself. Or, for that matter, to know where to turn once the clean up has come and gone but individual health problems linger. The science on chronic long-term exposures is still evolving, and the psychosocial costs to communities affected by hazardous waste sites are just beginning to be understood.
Jim Steadman was barely inside his Brooklyn Park front door that early evening last April when he heard an incredulous voice.
"You see the paper?"
How could he? He and Sally had just crawled in off their busy 12-hour shifts at Good Samaritan Hospital.
"You'd better look," said Phyllis, a longtime friend of the family.
Wearily, Jim glanced at the Baltimore Sun's front page for April 20, 2007, and felt his world collapse. Moments later, Sally was by his side in the kitchen, eyes glued to the same headline. Side by side, they devoured the story, then looked at each other, simultaneously speaking the one word from the piece that encapsulated their horror:
It's a word they'd never associated with Swann Park, their former home just 5 miles away. Sure, they had concerns in the past, knowing they were moving near the former site of a pesticide plant, but they had laid those fears to rest eons ago. Before they bought the little row house next to the park, they had asked the owner if she had heard of any problems. She mentioned the 1976 Kepone scare from the old Allied plant but added that the park quickly reopened. What's more, by 1984, when the Steadmans moved in, the Allied plant had been torn down. In its place was a giant patch of asphalt.
But now the site's chemical legacy was back with a vengeance, sending the Steadmans scurrying for information on arsenic. What they found out about arsenic exposure from respected sources frightened them. Increased risk of cancer. Stomach distress. Circulatory and peripheral nervous disorders. Birth defects. Affected pregnancies.
The 1970s environmental disaster of Love Canal forced the nation to respond to the dangers of defunct industrial sites.
Some problems related to acute arsenic toxicity, others from chronic exposure, but to Jim and Sally it didn't matter, as all paths led to home. The numb, tingling sensation Sally had in her hands and feet going on 10 years. She'd always assumed that was just par for the course for a nurse who worked with her hands and was on her feet a dozen hours a day. The CDC's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the federal government's environmental public health assessment and information arm, reports that a "pins and needles" sensation in the hands and feet can be signs of arsenic ingestion.
Sally wondered if other health problems the family had experienced were connected to the old chemical plant.
What have I done to myself? Jim asked himself that night. What have I done to my family?
Soon after the park's gates were shut last April, health commissioner Sharfstein asked Goldman and her colleagues to analyze Allied's data surrounding the park and offer insight on everything from proper testing procedures to the effects of arsenic exposure and clean-up recommendations.
For Goldman, Genevieve Matanoski's 1970s arsenic studies were an invaluable window into Swann Park. Matanoski had developed a working hypothesis that took into account that Allied had produced and stored large quantities of chemicals in the plant from 1955, when the plant was rebuilt, with production maxing out in the early 1960s. "You were looking at something of a timeline," she says, of a potential chronic arsenic exposure, which "gave cancer about 10 years to develop. That's exactly what you'd expect for a cancer, as opposed to what you'd expect—diarrhea or something G.I. —if it was an acute exposure."
At a community meeting in June, the CDC's ATSDR experts did not recommend testing of individuals for arsenic. To some in the audience who had long-term exposures at Swann Park, ATSDR's message appeared to conflict with its website, which noted that arsenic exposure could come from wind, water or food. Arsenic was also described as a particularly noxious substance: "Because it targets a number of metabolic processes," notes ATSDR, "arsenic affects nearly all organ systems of the body." Matanoski points out, however, that the Swann Park scenario does not match with the standard exposure routes because arsenic tends to reside lower in the soil (making it less likely to be carried on the wind as it had been when the pesticide factory was open). Nor were water and food likely routes of exposure, Matanoski says.
Still, neighbors and coaches and athletes who played at Swann Park felt their concerns were not being addressed. "If they tested us and we had tested negative, fine," one Swann Park resident told the Sun. "But they didn't test us, and they didn't even test the air quality... I'm so angry, I feel like I'm going to blow up."
Heather Moore, president of the nearby Federal Hill South Neighborhood Association, and the community liaison to Sharfstein's task force, was also at the public meetings. Moore empathized with her neighbors' discontent. Already feeling deceived by 30 years of undisclosed records, now many in the community felt they were being ignored, especially those right next to the park. "No one was forming a task force to look at houses on [McComas] Street," says Moore. "They were addressing issues of the park. No one said, 'You live 5 feet away from the park; you're probably seriously affected, too.'"
Goldman agrees that it's not enough to remediate the park; the community's health must be taken into account as well. "What does this mean for the people who live there?" she asks. "So far, the evidence would not indicate a need for a medical approach. At the same time, any unacceptable levels of arsenic will need to be cleaned up. Of course, as the situation progresses we may learn more, which could change my opinion."
On July 17, 2007, the Swann Park Task Force delivered its first report to Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon. The report focused solely on what Allied knew about arsenic contamination at Swann Park and when they knew it. The report's conclusions were damning. Regarding the city's 1976 Kepone Task Force (on which no Hopkins faculty served), the current Swann Park Task Force found that Allied did not reveal its arsenic data. The company believed attorney-client privilege protected distribution of the information, though Allied, according to the report, was "aware of the concern over arsenic in the park."
In all, Goldman and the task force reviewed hundreds of Allied documents dating back to the 1960s. Some were quite revealing: "From what I can tell, arsenic and other pesticides were blowing in the wind," says Goldman, pointing to one document that indicated a containment bag full of arsenic had blown apart in 1962. A handwritten note on the internal memo, presumably from an Allied official or worker at the time, said that the breakage had coated Swann Park with arsenic that "looked like snow."
"What surprised me wasn't that [leaks] happened, but that Swann Park wasn't shut down and fully remediated," says Goldman. Other documents showed that every place in Swann Park that was tested by Allied for Kepone in 1976—45 sites—was also tested for arsenic.
Goldman says that what the site was missing was an environmental champion with pull, the kind of veteran officials she worked with in California. "It doesn't seem like there was anybody working for the city, or the state, or the EPA, who kept this issue alive by going in and demanding more samples. Somehow, it was all forgotten," she says. Such an advocate, even on a neighborhood level, might have stepped in when the city and the state abandoned attempts to ensure continued environmental testing of the demolished plant site. This monitoring was essential, given that the highway construction and traffic above had caused previous asphalt caps over the site to crack, potentially releasing contaminants.
What Goldman and the task force hope to provide are recommendations to prevent future Swann Parks from occurring. Despite the fact that Matanoski had published and presented her Swann Park arsenic findings, the task force recommended more formal communications between academic researchers and the Baltimore City Health Department. In early October, Baltimore Health Commissioner Sharfstein responded by establishing regular meetings with academic researchers so important public health findings can be presented directly to health department officials.
The Task Force is expected to issue several more reports, focusing on Swann Park testing subsequent to 1976; reviews of legal requirements for reporting, disclosure and remediation from 1976 to the present; and potential legislative or enforcement actions. As for testing individuals who played in the park, the final ATSDR report released on October 26 recommended against urine or other testing because arsenic is quickly expelled by the body. More significantly, the ATSDR report revised its estimates of exposure risk and now considers Swann Park a "public health hazard," projecting a slightly increased lifetime cancer risk for someone who "ingested 100 mg of Swann Park soil for more than 182 days per year." Sharfstein, the city health commissioner, said in a statement that "The report both justifies closing the park, and it explains why extensive remediation is needed." He plans to work with Bloomberg School and state experts to do an overall cancer assessment for the communities in the area of Swann Park. "The point is to assess cancer generally," says Sharfstein. "It will not answer questions about Swann Park, but it will help people understand their overall cancer risk and what they can do to lower it."
Sally and Jim Steadman devoured the newspaper story, looked at each other and said, "Arsenic?"
For its part, the state is investigating options for the Swann Park clean up. A work plan created and paid for by Honeywell with Baltimore City input was approved by the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) on June 12. The plan resulted in four types of soil testing and the installation of eight monitoring wells in Swann Park. MDE is now analyzing those test results and expects to shortly announce its "evaluation of remedial alternatives." On October 5, 2007, Honeywell and Baltimore City submitted a plan that would remediate Swann Park by removing soil only from areas of higher contamination, after which 2 feet of clean dirt would be laid down over the entire park. If approved by the state, the timetable calls for Swann Park to reopen in less than a year. (A Honeywell spokesperson says, "Where we have legacy responsibilities, or when evidence of damage from past or outdated practices is found, Honeywell acts with responsible remediation, practical solutions and sophisticated technological capabilities.")
As for the residents of the Steadmans' old block, McComas Street, MDE testing in June on the outside of three homes showed arsenic levels roughly 3 to 7 times background levels. The state ordered Honeywell to remove 3 inches of soil from the homes' yards and then put new patios over the yards, sealing the arsenic underneath. Honeywell made plans to comply, but the plans were put on hold when the McComas Street residents became part of a potential lawsuit led by Baltimore lawyer Peter Angelos. (His firm declined to comment for this article.)
Though Angelos's representatives asked residents not to speak to the press, one longtime homeowner says the potential health impact wasn't the only reason to sue someone over Swann Park. "Look at my house," he says, pointing in frustration at the brick row home. "It appraised last year for $300,000. Now who's gonna buy it?"
However, Swann Park's true legacy will likely be more than just financial. Long after remediation to the park has come and gone, the folks on McComas Street may find peace of mind elusive.
"It can be a real blow to a community to have one of these toxic waste problems," says Goldman, "even if nobody's ever exposed to a molecule of the waste. In terms of what happens to the property values, the integrity of community and the rifts that develop between people."
The rifts that no remediation can reach.
While the Steadmans are part of the proposed lawsuit, the fact that it took Sally more than two months to send the medical paperwork to the lawyers gives you some idea that she's not real keen on the idea.
"We're not people who are lawsuit oriented," she says, as her husband nods in agreement.
Clearly tired and frustrated, Jim looks like the unwilling recipient of a riddle book with the answer page ripped out.
"I didn't intentionally move my family into a waste plant," he says. "But now it's like, 'Damn...what have we subjected all of ourselves to?'"
On a recent visit to their old block, the Steadmans stand at the end of McComas Street. A chain-link fence stretches across the end of the asphalt. A metal sign warns that Swann Park is closed by order of the health department. Behind the fence, weeds and grass sprout hip-high on the old baseball diamonds and the football field. The occasional beer can and discarded trash are evidence that not everyone respects the health department sign.
The Steadmans do.
Jim recalls when they first moved into their house. "It was not the most aesthetically pleasing place," he says, pointing to the dilapidated cinderblock building across the street and the factory behind the houses. "And then, you realized this was a little oasis that nobody knew about. It's a cul de sac and there's no through-traffic so it was safe for the kids. The best thing was, you looked down there [to the park] and there was all this green and the water. And the sunsets. It was very pretty... For me, the memories are still here and still positive. You can't change that. It's just disappointing to find out that you were living in a fantasy world of 'this is a beautiful park'—but don't play in the park."
He stares for a moment at the park, which looks abandoned and bedraggled. "It's nasty looking right now. It used to be green," Jim says finally.
The family returns to their memories of life next to the park. The ball games on weekends. The vegetable garden in the backyard. The neighbors who became their extended family. The way they looked out for each other. Playing in the park every day. Making mudpies...
And Jim's whistle.
Shannon, Samantha and Kevin were free to roam the park for as long and as far as they wanted—provided they could still hear Jim whistle when it was time to come home. For old time's sake, Jim takes a deep breath, pulls his fingers to his mouth and looses an ear-splitting wail.
Sharp and shrill, the sound bounces off the row houses, pierces the chain-link fence and carries across the expanse of weeds and dirt beyond.
Then silence returns to Swann Park.