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Associated Press Addresses Its Lead Study Safety Coverage

November 05, 2017

Mike Silverman, senior managing editor at the Associated Press, said an April AP story on a lead study conducted in Baltimore "was unbalanced, and it created a distorted impression about the level of risk" in the experiment, according to an AP/Chicago Tribune report.

The AP story described a study conducted in 2000 in which compost created from treated sewage waste was spread on the yards of nine low-income, black households in East Baltimore to test whether the material reduced the risk of lead poisoning if the soil was consumed. The story also "described concerns about whether using treated sludge in such an experiment is itself dangerous," the AP/Tribune reports.

Silverman said that the original story "leaned too heavily" on the view that the compost is unsafe, adding, "Many researchers believe the compost is safe, but there are some who believe it may be dangerous and should be studied further." He says that the original story "leaned too heavily" on the view that the compost is unsafe, adding, "Many researchers believe the compost is safe, but there are some who believe it may be dangerous and should be studied further."

Michael Klag, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and a study researcher, said the original AP story was "inaccurate and misleading" and implied that the researchers "targeted vulnerable families for use of a product that we would never, ever consider using ourselves. It's just not true."

In addition, the AP did not distinguish the difference between "Class A biosolids," which were used in the Baltimore study, and "Class B" material, according to Klag. Compost using Class A material has been treated to cut any detectable levels of germs, is rated of "exceptional quality" and is sold in stores to treat lawns, while Class B can still contain some levels of germs and is not approved to be used as a lawn treatment. Class B has raised some health concerns, according to the AP/Tribune.

A 2002 report by a National Academy of Sciences committee examined the safety of both classes of compost -- with a stronger emphasis on Class B -- and concluded that more research is needed to address the "persisting uncertainty" about the possible adverse effects of the compost.

Rufus Chaney, a USDA researcher and co-author of the Baltimore study, said, "We don't have perfect knowledge, but we don't have any evidence that we're failing to be adequately protective," adding that it is "pretty far-reaching to claim there's a risk."

Murray McBride, director of the Cornell Waste Management Institute, said there still could be safety concerns even with materials that meet Class A and exceptional-quality standards, which do not include testing for some potentially harmful materials that could be in compost. McBride was quoted in the original AP story (Ritter, AP/Chicago Tribune, 6/13).

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