New war urged on lead paint 30% of city's children said to be at risk

November 26, 1990|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Evening Sun Staff

James Manfuso's name and title were misidentified in a story Monday about the mayor's lead poisoning prevention task force. Manfuso was chairman of a subcommittee that drafted the task force's report.

The Evening Sun regrets the errors.

A city task force has called for a renewed attack on lead poisoning, warning that the health and school performance of more than 30 percent of the city's young children are threatened by the toxic, lead-laced paint present in most Baltimore homes.

In a draft report submitted to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the 31- member task force urges the city to seek new state laws requiring disclosure, testing and ultimately abatement of lead-paint hazards whenever homes built before 1978 are sold.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The panel also says the city should overhaul its "shotgun" approach to a problem that may affect as many as 200,000 homes in Baltimore.

"Baltimore aspires to be the 'City that Reads,'" the report says. "Yet 30,000 children under the age of 7 are finding their ability to read significantly impaired by lead poisoning."

The report proposes offering rent subsidies, deferred loans and tax credits to get landlords to remove or "abate" lead paint in low-income rental housing, where many of the worst poisoning cases occur.

The report, presented to the mayor's office last summer, has yet to be officially released. A copy of it was obtained by The Evening Sun.

Even before its release, however, the report has become mired in controversy. Landlords and real estate agents have attacked it, warning that following its recommendations will lead to massive abandonment of housing in the city.

And Schmoke, who appointed the task force, so far has not decided whether to accept its report. Elias Dorsey, acting city health commissioner, said the report is still being studied. But he said most of its proposals are too costly or politically unfeasible to implement.

"The mayor wants do-able," Dorsey said. "He wants to be able to do them."

Health advocates, however, contend that bold new measures must be tried to combat a problem that has resisted solution for decades. And they say the mayor's inaction raises questions about his commitment to dealing with the issue.

"There's just a real need to take a first step," said Anne Blumenberg, a director of the Coalition Against Childhood Lead Poisoning. "As it is now, people keep giving you "Catch 22" stories that never get you off square one."

500 CASES LAST YEAR

About 500 cases of lead poisoning were reported in Baltimore last year. Health experts say many more cases go undetected because only a fraction of the children at risk are tested. The task force urges testing for all children, all pregnant women, and those workers who deal with lead products.

Young children up to 6 years old are most vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can cause mental retardation, seizures and even deaths. The chief cause of poisoning is ingesting lead dust or flakes from lead-based paint in homes.

Lead paint has been banned for indoor use since 1977, but Baltimore has 200,000 homes built before 1950, when lead paint was widely used.

Most poisoning cases today are not severe enough to require hospitalization, but even low-level lead exposures can impair learning ability, lower intelligence and reduce the ability to concentrate.

A long-term study of lead-poisoned children this year found that seven times as many of them dropped out of school as did unexposed youths, and that they were nearly six times as likely to have reading disabilities.

Recent research also has found that lead is harmful to young children at levels far below what is now considered poisoned. The federal Centers for Disease Control is expected to lower the lead poisoning threshold by 40 to 60 percent early next year.

If the standard is lowered by 40 percent, the task force report says,more than 30 percent of the children in Baltimore under 7 years old may be considered poisoned. More than 100,000 children of all ages could be affected, it warns.

The report says that relatively few property owners have voluntarily removed lead paint because the cost -- $8,000 to $10,000 for a three-bedroom rowhouse -- often exceeds the value of rental homes in low-income neighborhoods.

It is unlikely that local or state government could ever pay for all the lead-paint abatement needed, the report notes. It calls for changing the "economic equation" to make a lead-free home worth more than one that has not been rendered safe.

The report recommends state legislation to heighten public awareness of lead-paint hazards in older homes and to see that all homes sold in Maryland eventually are safe.

3-STAGE LAW PROPOSED

The panel proposes a three-stage law requiring that:

* Within one year, all prospective buyers be warned that a house built before 1978 is likely to contain lead paint, which could pose a health hazard.

* Within three years, all homes be inspected and tested for hazardous lead dust before sale.

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