The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee will investigate the government’s funding of research in poor, Black neighborhoods on whether sewage sludge might combat lead poisoning in children, its chairman said Monday.
The Associated Press reported Sunday that the mix of human and industrial wastes from sewage treatment plants was spread on the lawns of nine low-income families in Baltimore and a vacant lot next to an elementary school in East St. Louis, Ill., to test whether lead in the soil from chipped paint and car exhausts would bind to it.
The research conducted in 2001 and 2002 was funded by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Agriculture Department and the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Senate committee said hearings on the health impact of using sludge as a fertilizer and the government’s promotion of the practice over the past three decades would be held before the end of summer.
“Our hearing will include an investigation of the risks associated with application of sludge in neighborhoods as reportedly took place in Baltimore,” said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the committee’s chairman.
The head of the Maryland chapter of the NAACP asked Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler to investigate the circumstances of the research and whether participants in the Baltimore study gave informed consent.
“These experiments harken 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 letter to 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. Other researchers disputed that finding. An AP review of grant documents found no evidence of any medical follow-up.
Stansbury said he also wanted to know more about the role that Johns Hopkins University and the Kennedy Krieger Institute, both in Baltimore, played in the study.
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.
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