NAACP Wants Probe Of Sludge Research In Poor Neighborhoods
POSTED: 4:53 pm EDT April 14, 2008
UPDATED: 5:52 pm EDT April 14, 2008
BALTIMORE -- The head of the Maryland chapter of the NAACP asked the state attorney general's office Monday to
conduct criminal and civil rights investigations into research in which fertilizer made from sewage sludge was spread
onto lawns in poor black neighborhoods.
Scientists used the sludge in Baltimore to test whether it might protect children from lead poisoning in the soil.
"These experiments hearken back to the infamous Tuskegee experiments" in which syphilis treatment was denied to
black men in order to study the illness, Gerald Stansbury, president of the Maryland Conference of the National
Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said in the letter to Attorney General Douglas Gansler.
Researchers said the families were assured the sludge was safe but were not told that there have been some health
concerns over the use of sludge.
The study concluded that phosphate and iron in sludge can increase the ability of soil to trap more harmful metals,
including lead, cadmium and zinc, causing the combination to pass safely through a child's body if eaten. However,
other researchers disputed that finding and an Associated Press review of grant documents found no evidence of any
Stansbury said he wanted to know if the participants gave informed consent, if their civil rights were violated, and what
role Johns Hopkins University and the Kennedy Krieger Institute played in the study.
"These and numerous other questions must be answered," Stansbury wrote.
The study was led by Mark Farfel, and funded by the federal department of Housing and Urban Development through
Kennedy Krieger, a children's research facility. The institute has referred questions to Johns Hopkins University, where
spokeswoman Joann Rodgers said a review board within its medical school had approved the study and the consent
forms provided to families that participated.
Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gansler, said the attorney general's office would look into the matter, along with
U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski's office, which has also received a copy of the NAACP's request.
Nine low-income families agreed to let researchers spread the sludge fertilizer on their yards and plant new grass. In
exchange, they were given food coupons as well as the free lawns as part of a study published in 2005 and funded by
the Housing and Urban Development Department.
The sludge, researchers said, put the children at less risk of brain or nerve damage from lead. A highly toxic element
once widely used in gasoline and paint, lead has been shown to cause brain damage among children who ate
lead-based paint that flaked off their homes.
Another study investigating whether sludge might inhibit the "bioavailability" of lead -- the rate it enters the
bloodstream and circulates to organs and tissues -- was conducted on a vacant lot in East St. Louis next to an
elementary school, all of whose 300 students were black and almost entirely from low-income families. In a newsletter,
the EPA-funded Community Environmental Resource Program assured local residents it was all safe.
Farfel has faced criticism previously for another lead study. In 2001, Maryland's highest court chastised Farfel, the
Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins over an EPA-funded study in which researchers testing low-cost ways to
control lead hazards exposed more than 75 poor children to lead-based paint in partially renovated houses.
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