Coconut Grove

Health expert: Toxic parks in Miami pose no danger to the public

Despite widespread concern about the potential effects of toxic metals in the soil of Coconut Grove’s parks, only a few people have apparently undergone testing for contamination.

Richard S. Weisman, director of the Florida Poison Information Center, told Grove residents at a health fair Saturday that 10 people had approached his office for advice about having their children tested for lead, arsenic and other materials. Of the 10, he said, only five later got back to him and reported the results of their tests, all of which were benign.

“It’s a ridiculously teeny number,” said Weisman, a professor of pediatrics and an associate dean at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine. The parents who called his office, he recalled, “all said their kids were in the parks all the time, rolling around in the dirt.”

Even if some residents had been tested without his knowledge, he said, any alarming results would by law have been reported to state health officials by the doctor or health facility that had undertaken the test.

“If even one of them had tested positive, the state would have stepped in,” he said.

Because state health officials haven’t received reports, Weisman said he’s confident that whatever toxic materials lie in the parks pose no danger to the public.

The health fair at which Weisman made his remarks was organized by the county and state health departments and state Rep. José Javier Rodríguez, whose district includes Coconut Grove.

“In the last year, there have been a lot of questions and speculation about health in this area,” Rodríguez said. “Are they OK? Are their families OK? So we’re just trying to provide some answers.”

Residents became alarmed last summer after revelations that some soil samples from the area showed contamination from carcinogens such as arsenic and heavy metals, including barium, lead and cadmium. Several parks are shut down while cleanup efforts continue. The contaminants were believed to have come from ash that spewed for more than four decades from a trash incinerator built in 1925 and known in its West Grove neighborhood as Old Smokey. The incinerator was closed in 1970 after complaints about pollution and a lawsuit from neighboring Coral Gables.

“The exposures are basically minimal,” Weisman told the gathering in the gym at Elizabeth Virrick Park, which is still open to the public. “They’re below the levels of concern. As soon as people hear that a park has been closed, that causes tremendous concern. The only way to be absolutely certain if a child has been eating dirt is to test them. If they believe the children have had significant exposure, test them.”

Weisman said that the only reliable way to find such exposures is a urine test. Hair tests are not effective, he said, because hair is affected by chemicals in shampoos and by atmospheric contaminants like tobacco smoke. “The metals that we’re talking about persist in the body for decades,” Weisman said, adding that his office had seen a large number of contaminated children from Caribbean countries where environmental regulations are in some cases not as strong as in the United States.

Jeffrey P. Brosco, a professor of clinical pediatrics at UM’s Mailman Center for Child Development, said there is no evidence to suggest that every child in the area needs to be tested. “For most parents,” he said, “the answer is: Move on.”

His view was echoed by Samir M. Elmir, director of Environmental Health and Engineering for the Miami-Dade County Health Department, who said that of 57 soil samples taken from parks and private properties in and around Coconut Grove, “nothing stood out except arsenic,” and then only in a sample that displayed “allowable levels” of the chemical element.

Not everyone who attended the gathering was assured.

“If the results are negligible, why are the parks still closed?” asked Hector Roos, a consultant for political campaigns. Then, answering his own question, he said, “They’ve got to be very careful making declaratory statements, because they just don’t have enough data.”

Rosa Palomino, a teacher at Citrus Grove Elementary in Miami, surmised that city and county officials were not about to “open themselves up to lawsuits” by reopening the parks before they have done everything possible to remove whatever poisons might lurk there.

“I’m going to invest in biohazard clean-up stocks,” she said. “Somebody is making a lot of money on the clean-up of these parks.”

For Ronnie Rumph, who was born in the West Grove in 1953, any removal of toxic materials from the area will do him no good. “I breathed that smoke in the ’60s,” said Rumph, a Vietnam veteran who suffers from arthritis.

“I remember the smoke settling in the field over there by the Carver school. Students used to exercise there, for years and years. They used to play football there. And the city is just starting to realize that the parks are contaminated? All of a sudden it’s coming up? What took them so long to realize it?”