IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Lawmakers want probe into sludge research

Three more lawmakers seek investigations of  research in poor, black neighborhoods that resulted in sewage sludge on  lawns to determine whether it could combat lead poisoning in children.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Three more lawmakers are seeking investigations of federally funded research in poor, black neighborhoods that resulted in sewage sludge being spread on several families' lawns in attempt to determine whether it could combat lead poisoning in children.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Rep. Elijah Cummings, both D-Md., wrote to departing Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson on Thursday asking why and how HUD picked nine Baltimore families for the study and whether they got adequate information about the potential harm. Jackson's last day in office is Friday.

"We are strong supporters of federal efforts to abate the damage caused by lead paint. Yet this study has raised serious questions about the safety of the families who participated in the study," they wrote.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., also wants the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, of which he is a member, to pursue an investigation into the sludge research.

Cummings also asked for a hearing by the oversight committee's domestic policy subcommittee that would include looking at the role played by two private Baltimore institutions involved in the research, the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and the Kennedy Krieger Institute.

He said he was alarmed "that researchers did nothing to assess the potential negative health outcomes of children ingesting and living near the sludge. The health risks associated with such a study are clear to even the most casual observer."

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.

Researchers were trying to show whether lead in the soil from chipped paint and car exhausts would bind to the sludge.

"This article raises serious allegations that federal grants may have been used for unethical research as well as questions about the wisdom of using taxpayer dollars for these grants," Issa wrote in a letter Tuesday to Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who chairs the committee.

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.

Safeguards probed
Researchers said the families were assured the sludge was safe, but were not told that there have been some health concerns over heavy metals, pharmaceutical residues, chemicals and 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.

Mikulski and Cummings said in their letter to Jackson that they also wanted to know what safeguards HUD put in place in awarding contracts for the research and how the government monitored it.

Earlier in the week, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee that she chairs would convene a hearing before the end of summer to investigate the research, the health impacts of using sludge as a fertilizer and the government's promotion of the practice over the past three decades.

The head of the Maryland chapter of the NAACP also has asked Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler to investigate the circumstances of the research and whether participants in the Baltimore study gave informed consent. Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for Gansler, said the attorney general's office would look into the matter.