City dawdles, children suffer

Wiley A. Hall 3rd

December 06, 1990|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

The pettiness, the sheer, blind, pigheaded pettiness of our elected officials defies description.

While the mayor and the City Council squabbled for months over a silly non-issue like the temporary size of emergency fire crews, nearly a third of the city's children were suffering from lead-paint poisoning.

A city task force told the mayor last May that "as many as 30 percent of Baltimore's children have blood levels high enough to significantly impact upon their school performance."

The task force said 30,000 children under 7 years old were finding their ability to read significantly -- and possibly permanently -- impaired, and it noted that most cases of lead poisoning are not treatable.

The only solution, the task force said, is for the city to take bold and immediate steps to eradicate lead paint from homes.

The task force acknowledged that widespread eradication is expensive, but let's stop for just a second and contemplate the alternative -- 30,000 children!

"Lead, at even very low levels, not only lowers IQ . . . it also reduces the ability to concentrate, and often results in a degree of hyperactivity," said the task force in its draft report. "All these are factors which will significantly affect learning ability."

News that the futures of tens of thousands of city children are being irrevocably poisoned by a preventable, yet non-treatable malady ought to have galvanized this city. For what in all the whole wide world could possibly be more important?

But, alas, Baltimore officials haven't had time to worry about children.

Instead, the attentions and energies of the mayor and the City Council remained fixed all summer and for most of this fall on the Great Fire Crew Controversy.

Last summer, just about the time Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke received the draft report on the lead poisoning problem, the City Council became enraged at a plan to temporarily reduce the number of firefighters on emergency equipment from four to three.

The mayor had promised that crews would be restored to full strength upon graduation of two existing fire academy classes, but that didn't satisfy the council.

And so, the two sides squabbled and squawked, haggled and complained, until they hammered out a "compromise" that changed absolutely nothing at all.

This, of course, is not the first time city fathers have squandered their energies and our patience on squalid bickering over meaningless issues.

We have seen the Great Inaugural Controversy, for instance, where council members complained that Schmoke had not given them adequate VIP treatment at his swearing-in ceremony.

There was the Great Babusci Controversy when the mayor demoted a transportation official who had done favors for council members.

My personal favorite was the Great Bookmark Controversy, where council members complained bitterly when the mayor ran short on ceremonial bookmarkers touting the "city that reads."

Meanwhile, consider once again the immediacy and the immensity of the lead-poisoning problem -- 30,000 children under 7, possibly 100,000 affected children in all, an estimated 2,000 new cases a year.

You must appreciate, too, that city officials knew all along that thousands of children were at risk. Earlier this year, for instance, the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington reported that Baltimore preschoolers have one of the highest rates of lead poisoning in the country.

The social costs of these wounded children of the city is obvious.

One study, for instance, found that lead-poisoned children were six times more likely to have a reading disability as were unaffected children and seven times more likely to drop out of school. The city already has one of the highest drop-out rates in the state. It also has one of the highest percentages of children in special-education programs.

It further stands to reason that unemployment, crime and drug abuse would increase when you poison the futures of thousands of children.

The problem has been finding the resources to eliminate lead paint as well as finding compromises that will not offend landlords and property owners. That hasn't been easy.

Thus, the mayor and the City Council would much prefer to move slowly on the issue. They are, no doubt, saving their energies for their next big trivial pursuit.

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