Lead-paint panel asked for new study High removal costs are cited

January 17, 1991|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Evening Sun Staff

A city task force that made controversial recommendations for curbing lead poisoning among Baltimore's children has been asked to come up with a new report, focusing this time on finding cheaper ways of removing toxic, lead-based paint from low-income housing.

The 31-member panel, which met yesterday for the first time since last spring, was told by city health officials that many of the proposals it had made for stimulating more lead-paint abatement among landlords and homeowners were unrealistic, given tight budgets in city, state and federal governments.

Instead, Acting Health Commissioner Elias Dorsey said Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke wants the task force to come up with a new strategy that does not rely on state or federal help to attack a problem the panel has warned threatens the health and school performance of 30 percent of the city's young children.

Health officials have warned that as many as 30,000 children in the city under the age of 7 may be accidentally ingesting enough lead, primarily from disturbed or deteriorating lead-based paint, to cause nerve or brain damage, which could contribute to learning disabilities and poor school performance.

The panel presented its recommendations to Schmoke last summer after studying the problem for about a year.

Dorsey said that Schmoke met earlier this week with representatives of landlords and was concerned that it was costing too much to remove lead paint from homes and that landlords were having a hard time getting insurance for their properties.

It costs $13,000 on average to remove or cover up lead paint in two-story rowhouses where children have been poisoned, health officials say, a price many property owners are unwilling to pay since the investment does not seem to improve the value of their properties.

Stewart Levitas, a landlord on the panel, said that some property owners are boarding up their houses in response to official pressure to abate the lead-paint problem and the threat of liability from the hundreds of lawsuits filed on behalf of lead-poisoned children.

He and other landlords on the panel urged the city to consider relaxing its 3-year-old abatement regulations, which spell out how lead paint must be removed or encapsulated.

But Amy Spanier, the city's new lead-paint prevention coordinator, resisted such a proposal, noting that abatement rules were tightened because children were being poisoned anew when lead paint was partially removed under old accepted procedures.

Health officials said they hoped to support new research planned by the Kennedy Institute at Johns Hopkins Hospital that seeks less costly alternatives for curbing lead poisoning hazards, possibly through better maintenance of property.

Clinton Bamberger, a University of Maryland law professor who represents some low-income tenants in lead-paint cases, contended that lead paint was being removed or covered in relatively few homes because the city was not enforcing its laws and regulations aggressively enough.

Fewer than 100 lead-paint homes are being treated each year, while about 500 children test positive for lead poisoning, according to city statistics.

Melvin Knight, representing the Greater Baltimore Board of Realtors, argued that much of the lead poisoning has occurred because the city was not enforcing its housing code and was allowing rental homes to deteriorate generally.

Poor-quality housing is more likely to have deteriorating lead paint, which can be picked up and accidentally ingested by infants, toddlers and young children, according to a recent federal study.

"The bottom line is a lot of people are not living in safe housing," Knight said. He criticized the panel for recommending unrealistic measures in the past, such as proposing a state law requiring disclosure, testing and ultimately abatement of lead-paint hazards whenever homes built before 1978 are sold.

With some 200,000 housing units in the city built before 1978, when lead-based paint was still widely used, real estate industry spokesmen contended and city officials seemed to agree that such a law could harm the real estate market.

The task force also was asked to comment on a new eight-point plan drafted by health officials.

The plan calls for finding cheaper ways of removing lead-paint hazards, for expanding public awareness of the problem and for increasing screening of young children and pregnant women for lead poisoning.

It also proposes more research on the extent of lead poisoning in the city. While not rejecting the panel's earlier controversial proposals, health officials added them to the plan as subjects for further discussion.

Dorsey said the panel was to advise the city health and housing departments on a strategy that the agencies can recommend to the mayor. The panel also was asked to meet every six weeks and make a final report by mid-November.

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