Questions raised about toxic substances in the soil of two Coconut Grove parks

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 Kramer’s 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 didn’t 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, “It’s hard to quantify. It’s 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? It’s 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 that’s 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 anybody’s health is at risk.”

In September, after contamination was found at the Grove’s Blanche Park, 3045 Shipping Ave., nearly 200 people attended a meeting held by the city and the county’s 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 city’s 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 who’ve lived in the area since the 1940s and 50s don’t 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 county’s allowable levels.

The results, along with dozens of others available on the county web site, offered a dizzying array of information: pages of charts with some spots showing allowable levels of heavy metals and others showing sharp spikes in arsenic and lead.

Search for answers

Neighbors and parents, understandably, are reeling, pulled between having enough information to be concerned, but not enough to know how concerned.

“I would love to have some real answers,” said Dawn McCarthy, who took her 4-year-old and 7-month-old daughters to Blanche Park with a group of moms who met almost daily and planned Halloween, Christmas and Valentine’s parties. “I feel like I just don’t know what’s going on.”

Mark Anthony, whose 5-year-old daughter visited the park daily with his wife, took matters into his own hands. Two weeks ago, after the county health department told him it was not yet testing children, he sent a clipping of his daughter’s hair to a lab he found online. On Thursday, he got results that indicated she had high levels of lead and mercury. He has called his pediatrician for a follow-up appointment.

“It’s surprising since we’re very careful and very organically-based food wise,” said Anthony, who lives on Shipping Avenue near the park. “We’re just trying to narrow it down to figure out why her level of things are so high.”

Minimal risk

Tracing contamination is a complicated science. Water contamination, which has not been found in the Grove, poses a far higher risk than soil contamination. And contamination depends not just on exposure to a toxin, but how long that exposure lasts and how it happened. Was it ingested, absorbed or inhaled?

“The reality is the chances of human exposure to contaminants do exist. But does it mean we should panic?” Gurpal S. Toor, a University of Florida associate professor who studies pollution in urban landscapes, wrote in an email.

A lot more testing needs to be done to determine not only what’s in the soil, but what risk it poses, he said. Even so, the risk of contamination from soil is minimal.

“The chances of kids getting in contact with arsenic bound in soil is very, very low,” he explained. “There has to be physical contact in order to blame that source.”

The county and city are continuing to take samples while they await findings. They have some results for heavy metals, but none for dioxins, a soup of chemicals considered far more dangerous.

Already, workers have collected at least 200 samples from spots around Blanche Park. At Merrie Christmas Park, workers have mapped out a sampling grid to cover the more than five acres of open fields, picnic area and a playground. Until they have results, officials say they cannot determine what, if any steps need to be taken to address health issues, said Dr. Reynaldo Jean, interim director of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Immunization for the county.

“I understand these parents are concerned,” he said. “Once we get the results and based on the levels, then we move to the next step.”

Those results should finally arrive this Friday, Luis Espinoza, a spokesman for the county’s environmental office.

Other places

Doing testing to determine the extent and type of the contamination is the first step, said Richard Clapp, a Boston University cancer epidemiologist who studied contamination at the Wingate landfill and incinerator, a Superfund site in northwest Fort Lauderdale, and consulted with the state after looking at cancer cases in the area.

Ultimately, the state determined the area’s rates were not statistically different.

“The first step is what they’re doing, which is to find the levels of contamination on this grid and let people know,” he said. And while the testing is ongoing, he said, steer clear of the parks.

“No exposure is better than risky exposure,” he said.

But the investigation needs to be fair and open, said Dr. Steven Lipshultz, a pediatric cardiologist who next month takes over pediatrics at Wayne State University after running the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial’s Holtz Children’s Hospital for nearly a decade. Lipshultz also cared for children sickened after a Massachusetts leather tannery dumped contaminated drinking water in a landmark case that became the book and movie, “A Civil Action,” starring Robert Duvall and John Travolta.

Lipshultz’s son, Zach, a UM law student, first discovered the city’s report on contamination at the incinerator site, now a firefighter training facility.

“What you really need are experts who are disinterested parties and not one person currently at the table fits that role,” he said. “Let’s be instructive. Let’s not be alarmist, or lose credibility. What are the appropriate next steps? This is not the first time a community has been faced with this.”

Arsenic and lead

So far, officials have tested for heavy metals typical of incinerator ash, including arsenic, lead, silver, aluminum, barium, cadmium, chromium, iron, antimony, selenium and mercury. The U.S. Department of Environmental Protection establishes risk-based screening levels used by most parts of the country, but some states, like Florida, set their own limits, said Stephen M. Roberts, a UF professor and director of its Center for Environmental & Human Toxicology. Miami-Dade County has its own set of target clean-up levels, he said.

But even these exposures are an estimate, Clapp said.

“You can’t deliberately expose humans and see what happens and set a level based on human experiments. That’s unethical. So they do it on rats, and then have all these formulas for extrapolating to humans based on the size of rats and how long they live.”

The two metals that so far have raised the most concern: arsenic and lead.

Children tend to be more sensitive to lead than adults, according to the CDC’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. Large exposures can lead to anemia, kidney damage, colic, muscle weakness and brain damage. However, there are no specific symptoms to signal the exposure.

Heavy exposure to arsenic, on the other hand, can produce immediate symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dehydration and shock, which no one has reported near the parks. Long-term exposure may cause skin disorders and increase the risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and cancers of the bladder, liver, lungs and kidneys, the World Health Organization reports.

Until the 1940s, arsenic was routinely used in farming. Attorney Howard Nelson, an environmental lawyer and former land use planner, said in addition to spreading it as pesticide, Florida ranchers frequently used dip vats — trenches dug into the ground and filled with arsenic — to prevent cattle tick fever. When the arsenic drained through the state’s porous sands, ranchers simply refilled the vats, he said. This was done until the 1950s.

Two years ago, UM researchers suggested arsenic might play a part in the state’s elevated rates of pancreatic cancer. During their investigation into why Florida rates are higher than the national average, the researchers discovered 16 pancreatic cancer clusters across the state.

One was located in the West Grove, near the site of the old city incinerator. In a study published this year, the researchers noted that pancreatic clusters tended to be near arsenic-tainted wells. While arsenic is not known to cause pancreatic cancer, they theorized that just as arsenic and smoking might act together to trigger bladder cancer, the same might occur with pancreatic cancer. While they did not conclude the two were linked, they suggested further investigation. So far, they have not been able to secure funding.

The study was conducted before discovery of the contamination at the former incinerator site and at the two parks. It did not address potential effects from soil exposure.

One of the study’s authors, Jennifer Hu, a UM epidemiology professor and associate director of Cancer Prevention and Control at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center, declined to comment on the findings.

Clapp said in his 30 years of research, he’d never heard of a link.

“I don’t think it’s a settled question,” he said.

Beyond testing

Because they tend to put objects in their mouth, eat dirt and spend more time outdoors, children are considered more at risk for arsenic poisoning.

But just testing for metals in children — or adults — is not useful without first establishing a baseline. So the CDC regularly conducts its National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to measure chemicals in the population. In its most recent report, it found that the levels of lead found in children had dropped dramatically from highs in the 1970s, when more than 88 percent of U.S. children had elevated levels of lead in their blood. By 2004, that rate had dropped to 1.4 percent after bans on leaded gas and paint.

Arsenic, meanwhile, is also found in very small percentages. But determining where it comes from can be difficult. And because the investigation in Coconut Grove is still ongoing, it’s hard to reach any conclusions about health effects, said Vorhees, the Boston University health investigator.

The concentrations of arsenic found “aren’t concentrations you want kids exposed to. That’s not the same thing as saying, ‘Oh no, they’re going to have some terrible health effects,’ ” she explained. “Those metals don’t go through skin efficiently — they could be covered in dirt and it’s not likely a concern. But if they accidentally get it in their mouth, that’s what we worry about.”