Sludge study on low-income, African-American families raises ethical questions

I probably shouldn’t be shocked, but I am. It’s just hard to believe thisshit sludge still happens, but here it is:

Three more lawmakers are seeking investigations of federally funded
research in poor, black neighborhoods that resulted in sewage sludge
being spread on several families’ lawns in attempt to determine whether
it could combat lead poisoning in children.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski and Rep. Elijah Cummings, both D-Md., wrote to
departing Housing and Urban Development Secretary Alphonso Jackson on
Thursday asking why and how HUD picked nine Baltimore families for the
study and whether they got adequate information about the potential
harm. Jackson’s last day in office is Friday.

“We are strong supporters of federal efforts to abate the damage
caused by lead paint. Yet this study has raised serious questions about
the safety of the families who participated in the study,” they wrote.

SNIP

The Associated Press reported Sunday that the mix of human and
industrial wastes from sewage treatment plants was spread on the lawns
of nine low-income families in Baltimore and a vacant lot next to an
elementary school in East St. Louis, Ill.

Researchers were trying to show whether lead in the soil from chipped paint and car exhausts would bind to the sludge.

“This article raises serious allegations that federal grants may
have been used for unethical research as well as questions about the
wisdom of using taxpayer dollars for these grants,” Issa wrote in a
letter Tuesday to Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., who chairs the committee.

The research conducted in 2001 and 2002 was funded by the Department
of Housing and Urban Development, the Agriculture Department and the
Environmental Protection Agency.

Researchers said the families were assured the sludge was safe, but
were not told that there have been some health concerns over heavy
metals, pharmaceutical residues, chemicals and the use of sludge.

The study concluded that phosphate and iron in sludge can increase the
ability of soil to trap more harmful metals, including lead, cadmium
and zinc, causing the combination to pass safely through a child’s body
if eaten. Other researchers disputed that finding. An AP review of
grant documents found no evidence of any medical follow-up.

Mikulski’s letterhere

More here including past controversial studies conducted by the above study’s author.

5 thoughts on “Sludge study on low-income, African-American families raises ethical questions

  1. ? Tuskeegee Study Anyone?
    According to the linked article, this passed the muster of the Johns Hopkins IRB. Let us hope that the IRB isn’t terminally flawed as this will call other research at the same institution into question.
    One thing I don’t understand from the article is that while sludge has been used as a fertilizer for several decades, the sludge is very likely to contain high levels of toxic metals. So they weren’t just seeing if the sludge would bind the metals previously there, but they were actively adding more metals. So the ethical threshold should have been much higher for them actively adding metals.

  2. Researchers said the families were assured the sludge was safe, but were not told that there have been some health concerns over heavy metals, pharmaceutical residues, chemicals and the use of sludge.
    That is then not informed consent. If informed consent wasn’t obtained, the ethical foundation of the study is shit, as there was a gross violation of the respect for persons used as subjects.
    And Maple Street, you’re right about the JH IRB that approved the study placing all sponsored research at the institution at risk.
    But with all due respect, while this study certainly appears to have been horrific and totally out of compliance with accepted research (to say the least), it hardly compares to the Tuskegee Study, which was conducted directly by the government (PHS), on dozens of men, and lasted fordecades, protected by the knowing collusion of government officials. I guess I’d say one is horrible while the other was a true atrocity.
    And I think that perspective is important to protect. For some people, making inaccurate comparisons to the Tuskeegee Study is parallel to doing the same with the Holocaust.

  3. Virgotex – you’re right. An all out comparison would be overblown. I was mainly reacting to the same shades of callousness. But it was going too far.

  4. Absolutely, Maple. I’m trying to find out more about it today. I’m surprised I didn’t already hear about it.
    Also, something else to think about, in addition to getting past the JH IRB, this thing got peer-reviewed and funded by three fed agencies. It boggles the mind- I’ve got to find out more.
    I knew about the EPA’s “safe levels of pesticides” travesty a few years back but this one got past me.

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