Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Sludge study in poor black neighbourhoods...

So the US Department of Housing and Urban Development tested laying down sludge on lawns and a vacant lot to see if it reduce lead poisoning. Interesting. Lead poisoning is certainly bad but besides the rather suspicious fact that studying this only in poor black neighbourhoods seems unethical in terms of choosing the people who would have the fewest means to argue, it also seems invalid. What if it turns out that it's fine for African Americans but deadly for Caucasians? What if poorer individuals, due to a less healthy diet, are more sensitive to whatever's in the sludge, as compared to middle and higher income families? I don't know anything about this study other that from the above linked article so perhaps I'm assuming a lot but I would hope that details about other tested areas and populations would be reported by the Associated Press.


Sarah Werning said...

I encourage you to read the original study (which I would be happy to send you if you email me). I think the ABC/AP journalists are taking advantage of American scientific illiteracy and our country's unfortunate history of screwing over the poor and minorities to push a sensationalist piece that seems to reflect reality very poorly. I actually read the original scientific article (and blogged about it over at http://bio-rocks.blogspot.com). Before it ever reaches lawns (or the store, this product is commercially available), the "sludge" is composted for 45 days and then pasteurized (which, incidentally, is how we make milk safe to drink). The substance they used is actually an organic compost fertilizer and not "sludge" or human wastes, as the article claims. As part of the study, the researchers measured the amount of toxic chemicals (actually: trace amounts of lead, zinc, and other substances found naturally in soil) in the compost fertilizer (which turns out to be extremely below the EPA's safe limits, and also negligible compared to what was already in the soil). Also, it turns out that the product they used, Orgro, is the same fertilizer they use at the Vice President's place. So it would seem it's also safe for rich white people.

One reason I wish more journals were open-access is that the media couldn't exploit people who don't have access to the original research and make false claims. What we have here is an environmentally-friendly, organic way to deal with human waste, that has been on the market for many years. These journalists make it seem like the scientists poured raw sewage on poor people's lawns. They did not.

Matthew said...

Read the article (I'm a librarian... lol) or at least skimmed it seriously. You're absolutely right about the journalists in this case. Their article and the article they are supposedly talking about seem to have no relation to each other! Did they even read it? Well, that's a dumb question. I didn't even read the whole thing! lol

Journals have to be much more than just open access to get around the media rewording things intentionally or otherwise. The biggest hurdle is simply the public's dislike of reading (or thinking about) anything scientific or academic in any way.

Even after checking out the article, I'm not sure I understand why they had to test it specifically in situ? They were studying the bioaccessibility of lead in the soil. They didn't seem to study anything connected to the families, the plant of the buildings (other than differences in concentrations), or any other environmental concern. Couldn't they have done this in the lab or less populated locale? Again, I didn't read the whole thing and I have no degree in any of the health sciences so perhaps I'm missing something.

(Link to your post about all this. An informative breakdown of the issue plus the reference to the study mentioned. Also some rather entertaining comments.)