State health workers, backed by a team of doctors from the University of Miami, insisted at a community meeting Tuesday that contaminated soil at a popular park in Coconut Grove does not pose a health risk to children or adults.
But residents, who in October snapped a photo of a city worker mowing grass at an another contaminated park in a full protective suit and mask, remained skeptical.
"I would have liked to have known more about the effect on young children. They just don’t have this. There’s no data," said Lorenzo Vallone, whose two children, 10 and 7, played frequently at Blanche Park. He said he may have them screened "just to have peace of mind."
In September, city officials first discovered that ash dumped on the land at 3045 Shipping Avenue decades ago contaminated the park with toxic heavy metals. The testing was done as part of a wider study of the area ordered by the county after residents complained the city had failed to address contamination found more than two years earlier at an old municipal incinerator site just over a mile away. The testing eventually led the city to close two additional parks and begin investigating all 112 of its parks.
To determine the health risks, Samir Elmir, director of the Miami-Dade County Health Department’s division of Environmental Health and Engineering, said Tuesday the department took a conservative approach and relied on federal standards.
For children, the department calculated the danger to a 99-pound child and found that even one who played in the park 250 days out of the year and ingested 50 milligrams of soil every day over 14 years was in no danger of becoming sick. Elmir said the department only considered contaminants in the first six inches of soil, arsenic, copper, barium, iron, dioxin and antimony, which was also found in groundwater, an immediate threat. None reached levels considered dangerous.
"The bottom line was all the contaminants were less than the health benchmark values," he said.
But parents questioned the findings, asking what threat faced children who played at Blanche Park before it was covered with artificial turf. They also balked at basing calculations on a 99-pound child, saying most who play in the park, which is divided between a playground and dog park, weigh far less.
"I’ve never seen a child at that park who weighed 99 pounds," said resident Dawn McCarthy.
Elmir said regardless of weight, concentrations were not high enough to cause illness.
"They were not high. They were marginally high," he said. "If I had an issue with it, I would be the first one to raise it. But I’m very confidant with these numbers. You should feel very confidant and comfortable."
McCarthy also asked about the danger before the city covered the park with artificial turf.
"I want to know what kind of exposure these little kids had when they were rolling around in it, eating it and filthy," she said.
Health workers could only "extrapolate" the risk based on current date, Elmir explained. "We did the best we could," he said.
Unlike Merrie Christmas and Douglas parks, which were closed, Blanche has remained open because it is mostly covered with turf, installed in 2010 and early 2013. After the contamination was discovered, the city paved over a dirt parking area. The county says the turf and asphalt act as a protective seal.
But resident Marc Allen, whose daughter played in the park, asked for proof that the turf protects children.
"We saw holes a foot and a half deep to two feet deep in the (artificial) turf and everybody here knows the children have been digging," Allen said.
To appease parents, Dr. Richard Weisman, a medical toxicologist as well as director of Miami’s Florida Poison Information Center and associate dean of admissions at the UM’s Miller School of Medicine, advised them to talk to their pediatricians and be careful about how their children are tested.
"There is a huge difference between being exposed and having a level that needs to be treated, because treatment can have risks," he said.
While some parents have had their children’s hair tested — two including McCarthy’s older daughter have shown elevated levels of uranium and mercury — Weisman warned that hair testing is not accurate.
"It’s of no value....because (hair) absorbs metals, so it will get concentrated. So if you walk into a room where there’s cigarette smoke, or someone’s barbecuing, or you wash your hair everyday, it will absorb," he said.
He advised parents to instead ask their pediatricians about performing 24-hour urine sampling to determine "without a shadow of a doubt" if children have been exposed.
"Obviously not everyone needs to be tested," he explained. "But that’s how you work through this and close the loop."
When parents questioned the health department’s weight calculation, Weisman said studies have not been done on young children.
"We don’t know the effects on a six-month-old," he said. "So we’re dependent on looking at the data and looking at the literature and there are not a whole lot of studies."
Still, he said "the odds are against" any children becoming sick.
"It would take a whole lot of that for someone to get sick because it’s fairly, fairly dilute," he said.
The city is now drafting a clean up plan to address the contamination, Commissioner Marc Sarnoff said. The plan will likely include removing two feet of tainted soil and replacing it with clean soil. The city will also likely install a liner between the soil and new turf. The clean-up is expected to start in February. In the meantime, new playground equipment and a fence are being installed at nearby Lincoln Park, which the city tested and determined had no sign of contamination.
The city is also considering removing contaminated soil at Merrie Christmas Park and hopes to have it reopened by June, Sarnoff said. Douglas Park, which closed after contamination was discovered last month, will likely take much longer and involve more work, he said.