Posted April 16, 2008 – In a U.S. government-funded study, researchers spread sludge made from treated industrial and human waste on the yards of nine low-income Black families in Baltimore to test whether the sludge would protect children from lead poisoning, The Associated Press reported.
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The families were told the sludge was safe and never informed them about any possibly dangerous elements. In exchange for allowing the sludge to be spread in yards, the families received food coupons and new lawns, according to documents obtained by the AP.
The researchers said the sludge (leftover solid wastes from treatment plants) reduced the children's risk of lead-related brain or nerve damage. The phosphate and iron in sludge can bind to lead and other hazardous metals in soil. This means that, if a child eats contaminated soil, the harmful metals will pass safely through the body. The study was published in the journal Science of the Total Environment in 2005. However, many experts are skeptical about this claim.
While the sludge can bind to lead in soil, "it's not at all clear that the sludge binding the lead will be preserved in the acidity of the stomach" when it's eaten, said soil chemist Murray McBride, director of the Cornell Waste Management Institute. He questioned why the families weren't told about possibly harmful ingredients in the sludge and why low-income people were chosen for the research.
"If you're not telling them what kinds of chemicals could be in there, how could they even make an informed decision? If you're telling them it's absolutely safe, then it's not ethical," McBride told the AP.
Gerald Stansbury, president of the Maryland Conference of the NAACP, says that this kind of experiment has an all-too-familiar feel: like the infamous Tuskegee experiment (1932-1972), when the government withheld penicillin from Black men with syphilis so scientists could study the growth patterns of the disease. Families were assured that the fertilizer was safe, but they were never informed about potential health risks.
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