The war on lead poisoning seems destined to fail

February 04, 1991|By Jack Reilly

MAYOR SCHMOKE is wise to reject the report from his task force on lead poisoning, which calls for the removal of all in-place lead paint. The intent is laudable, but short of vaporizing Baltimore city, we run no more chance of eliminating lead paint than Chicken Little would of stopping the sky from falling by removing the sky.

We've been fumbling through abatement -- or removal -- programs for about 10 years now. There have been ambitious efforts to eliminate residential formaldehyde vapors, asbestos, lead paint and radon. These hazards have been said to cause everything from birth defects to learning disabilities to insanity, from minor ailments to cancer and death.

The reported dangers wax and wane largely on the success of tort lawyers in extracting sound bites from a physician or scientist on the courtroom stand. In spite of this circus, residential abatement programs have been fairly good for radon, about a draw for asbestos and a disaster for lead paint.

In essence, the success of these programs depends on how much exposure to hazardous materials we are willing to accept. Radon abatement is successful because we can dramatically reduce our exposure to chromosome-busting alpha particle radiation at very little cost. But these programs do not attempt to eliminate our exposure altogether. If any of us wants this, we would be well advised never to eat a green vegetable, experience sunlight or sleep next to another human being.

Certainly the reduction of asbestos in the work place is one of the better improvements to public health in the last 20 years. But the attempt at a complete elimination of the asbestos we live with on a day-to-day basis can hardly be called a success. Over the past seven to 10 years we have pumped out $25 to $100 billion in an attempt to satisfy the purists who wish to see all passive asbestos removed from houses, schools and workplaces. In spite of these sums there is no evidence that a single life has been saved or that overall amounts of airborne asbestos in "abated" buildings have been reduced.

The abatement of lead paint has been even less successful. In fact, until recently it was a remarkable failure in Baltimore.

For several decades the city's approach to lead paint abatement was based on the ill-observed and somewhat condescending theory that some toddlers, particularly those of the underclass, would seek out lead paint and chew on it because it tastes sweet. Houses laden with lead dust were not considered a problem, and the normal and frequent hand-to-mouth behavior of toddlers was not considered an issue.

Before July 1, 1987, in dwellings in which children suffered from lead poisoning, the city required only that lead paint be removed within four feet of the floor. The removal was usually done with an open flame; there were no regulations and little regard for the paint chips, lead dust and vapor this would generate. As a result a house or apartment would often be more contaminated with lead after abatement than before. Children released from the hospital were often re-admitted with a second dose of lead poisoning.

These practices perpetuated a cycle in which, out of 100 or so hospital admissions for lead poisoning each year, approximately would be re-admissions. But these admissions were almost exclusively from poor families, the inarticulate and the disorganized who lived in run-down rental property.

To date, the Johns Hopkins lead programs have had no admissions of children poisoned by lead paint in such lead-infested neighborhoods as Guilford, Roland Park or Lutherville. If this were a middle-class problem, it would not have remained festering in the background for so long.

In cases where children's blood levels have reached the toxic point in owner-occupied homes, it has generally been because of a specific cause, such as burning or sanding lead paint -- not because of the normal interaction of a house and its occupants. After all, it was because of contractors' sanding lead paint that the White House recently suffered from lead dust contamination.

We are told by the mayor's task force that 30,000 Baltimore children are finding their ability to read significantly impaired. Some even believe that these children are many times more likely to drop out of school and become a burden to society, all because of their exposure to lead paint. Yet that number is based on a standard far lower than the levels at which lead-blood counts are now considered toxic. In fact, the scientific evidence that low levels of lead make a substantial difference in a child's cognitive abilities is divided.

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