When Miami officials announced toxic soil had been found at a popular park in the heart of Coconut Grove, a spot in the compact neighborhood where moms and nannies gathered daily, Dr. Gary Kramers phone began ringing.
Two weeks later, when a second park just down the street from his pediatric practice tested positive for similar chemicals, another round of frantic calling began.
Ultimately, Kramer sent about a dozen kids for testing. Not because of what he knew about the contamination. But because of what he didnt know. No kids were coming in sick, but some parents were deeply worried.
With so little to go on, Kramer could only suggest the kids be tested to determine whether they had been exposed to heavy metals.
But then what? There is no one magic number to look for. To put it simply, Kramer said, Its hard to quantify. Its hard to know from one child to another what the exposure has been. How long have they lived there? Do they play there every day? Do the kids go in the dirt? Do they eat the dirt? Its hard to normalize what the exposure is from one child to another.
When parks test positive for toxic chemicals, concern can quickly turn into panic. Fences go up and neighbors freak out. In the absence of conclusive facts, parents are left with nothing but worry. Whether the contamination found at the two parks caused any health problems could take years, if ever, to determine.
Some sites have the potential for exposures. They have big scary numbers, but in reality, nobody is exposed, explained Donna Vorhees, an adjunct professor in public health at Boston University who has studied chemical spills and soil contaminations around the world.
So thats the kind of investigation you need: Where is the contamination relative to where people are spending their time? From there you can figure out if anybodys health is at risk.
In September, after contamination was found at the Groves Blanche Park, 3045 Shipping Ave., nearly 200 people attended a meeting held by the city and the countys environmental chief to answer questions.
When the city found similar contaminants about two miles away at Merrie Christmas Park, concern intensified as the county ordered the city to close the park for testing and to test all of its 112 parks.
The findings came amid increasing complaints over the two-year delay in investigating contamination at the citys old municipal incinerator on nearby Jefferson Street in the West Grove, which may have produced the ash found at the parks.
In 1943, the city purchased the land at what is now Blanche Park, using the site as a trash and ash dump before converting it to a park in 1962. Merrie Christmas was once a limestone quarry, producing the rock used for streets in the South Grove. The city purchased the site from what was then Dade County for $1 in 1954. In 1958, the city says, records show it was rechristened Merrie Christmas Park. Neighbors whove lived in the area since the 1940s and 50s dont ever recall it being used as a dump.
While a larger study of spots around the neighborhood show safe levels of heavy metals, the two parks churned up more interest.
Word of a pancreatic cancer cluster also surfaced. Then a Facebook page dedicated to Merrie Christmas Park began posting sampling results from the county: one sample taken from six inches below the soil showed arsenic at 23.6 mg/KG, about 10 times allowable levels set by the county. At Blanche Park, arsenic levels were even higher, detected at 63.6 mg/KG just below the surface and at 72.9 mg/KG at six to 12 inches beneath soil or 30 to 35 times the countys allowable levels.