Senior Correspondent

Environmental racism (Wikipedia)

WASHINGTON ( – Maryland environmental and civil rights leaders condemned federally funded studies to find a cheap way to clean up lead-contaminated soil that put fertilizer made from treated human and industrial waste on the lawns of East Baltimore row houses and a vacant lot near a school in East St. Louis, Ill. All of the exposed homes and the school were in poor, Black neighborhoods.

A Senate committee chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) plans hearings, while the president of the Maryland NAACP wants a criminal investigation


“Someone putting human waste and industrial waste in someone’s yard as a test? That sounds like Tuskegee all over again,” said Gerald Stansbury, president of Maryland State Conference of NAACP Branches in published reports. The Tuskegee Experiment began in the 1930s and continued for 40 years, when government researchers allowed syphilis in Black men in Alabama to go untreated in order to study the effects of the disease.

Mr. Stansbury was responding to an Associated Press article about the sludge study. The study was begun in 2000 and resulted in a paper written in 2005. AP discovered that research had been done in Baltimore, where Class A sewage sludge fertilizer was spread on lawns in poor Black neighborhoods without fully disclosing all of the risks involved to the residents, and they investigated, reporting their findings April 14. The idea of the study was to see if the sludge would bind to lead in the soil and make lead less likely to be absorbed if consumed by humans.

The yards were chosen because of the high concentration of lead found in poor, Black neighborhoods of Baltimore, according to Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), whose district includes Baltimore. The affected families could not afford to dig up their yards to get rid of the lead, officials said. The families volunteered but may not have been fully informed of every aspect of the research. They were given financial incentives to participate in the experiment.

“They were given food coupons, free lawns, free doormats,” story author John Heilprin told Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now! “And they were essentially told that this was commercial-grade fertilizer, that it was safe, and that they would be better off using this fertilizer than before.

“The thing that I found interesting was that this government-sponsored research essentially operates on the premise that this fertilizer is safe enough and good enough to eat, even though the researchers say that the fertilizer was not fed directly to the children, the premise of the research is that if they eat it, they will be better off,” said Mr. Heilprin.

“As far as whether it’s a Tuskegee situation, I must tell you that it does give the appearance of a Tuskegee situation, but I still think the jury is out,” Rep. Cummings told The Final Call. “I want to be fair to everybody, and I think that the jury is still out on that. I think that the more we get into this–and I’ve already asked (Rep.) Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who heads up our Domestic Policy Sub-Committee of the Government Reform Committee to look into holding a hearing so that we can see if we can’t get to the bottom line on this,” he continued.

Several waste-management specialists and researchers say the same material used in the study by researchers with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is used in residential gardens throughout the country and even in a park in front of the White House.

“Believe me, it’s all over suburbia,” said Robin Davidov, executive director of the Northeast Maryland Waste Disposal Authority, a government agency that helps turn sewage into composted sludge according to The Baltimore Sun. The process is similar to pasteurization. The material is heated to a high temperature to kill pathogens, she said.

About 6 million tons of this type of fertilizer are sold a year. The Maryland Department of the Environment has approved its use, as has the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Still, Baltimore residents are “very upset because they don’t understand it. Very upset,” said Rep. Cummings.

“After the hearings we may have to put forth legislation to try to make sure government funds are never used to do these kind of experiments again,” Mr. Cummings said.

“No one knows, of course, exactly why they picked those families or the neighborhoods, but I do think that nationwide, as with the spreading of sludge and with the research, it tends to go to areas where it is not challenged,” said Mr. Heilprin. “And some of this research, as we reported, in East St. Louis also was done next to an elementary school. It was tilled into the soil next to an elementary school with 300 students, all of whom were Black, and almost all were poor. No one can say for sure why that was done, but it seems to me that perhaps it’s done in areas where there are fewer questions. That’s what some of the experts say.”