An ill-conceived abatement program

February 05, 1991|By Jack Reilly

IN 1987 Baltimore city implemented a new program requiring removal of all lead paint from a household in which a child has been hospitalized with lead poisoning. Although it is certainly better than the old program, this effort continues to fall short of its goal of protecting children from lead-dust contamination.

As a private building inspector, I doubt that the city has the resources to follow through on its abatement orders. Several years ago, under the old program, two children on my East Baltimore block were hospitalized with lead poisoning. The rental apartment in which they lived was in such poor condition that their parents had to move before the children were returned to their custody. The landlords never carried out the abatement order, although city records now indicate that a satisfactory abatement was inspected and approved. Under the present standards, which are more rigorous, I suspect that city budget restraints will make enforcement even more lax.

But on paper the new city and state regulations on lead-paint abatement look as if they will work. They encourage the wholesale removal of all objects painted with lead paint. In an older house this usually means all windows, doors, baseboards, wood trim, cabinets, banisters and spindles. In the case of a detached wooden house, this could include all clapboard siding, stairs, porches, verandas, cornices and trim.

The regulations permit several kinds of removal methods, some of them questionable. For brick, for example, wet sand-blasting is OK. But sand-blasting is the best known way to destroy brickwork; it has been outlawed in Baltimore city for more than a decade. It is also an excellent way to spread particulate lead matter around a neighborhood.

When the hearings for these regulations took place, no one from the Maryland Historical Trust (the state agency concerned with historic preservation) was informed or attended. Nor is it apparent that any contractors familiar with renovation techniques testified. Aluminum siding on clapboard, for example, will not "contain" lead paint. As aluminum siding expands and contracts, it will scrape against failed paint, which will be washed out into the environment by the water and air that easily get behind aluminum siding.

If this were not enough, the new abatement program does not appear to have done much to prevent the re-poisoning and re-admission to area hospitals of many Baltimore children.

In 1986, there were 112 admissions and 26 re-admissions. Four years later, there were 71 admissions and 30 re-admissions.

In light of these numbers, it is difficult to understand how the mayor's task force on lead-paint poisoning could state confidently that, "When the cause of lead poisoning is lead-based paint, the knowledge of how to safely abate the hazard is clearly known." As we are propelled toward the outer reaches of bureaucratic metaphysics, we then encounter the assertion that "the long-range goal is to de-lead all of Baltimore." There will be loan programs and grant programs, tax credits and rent subsidies. There will be a pilot project and a model neighborhood that will be entirely free of lead-based paint. Within 15 years it will be against the law to sell a house in the state of Maryland that has any lead-based paint in it. Or so the task force hopes.

The problem is, this enthusiasm to save the world will make private historic preservation prohibitively expensive and will only serve to increase the ranks of the homeless, particularly among families with children. The "abated" rental down the street from me has been rented since the children were released from the hospital, but it has never again been rented to a family with children.

We often dismiss the homeless as alcoholics, derelicts, drug addicts and schizophrenics, while all too often they are the working poor. One-third to one-half of the homeless in the United States are now families with children. According to estimates from the Department of Human Resources and Action for the Homeless, shelter in 1989 was provided for approximately 20,000 parents and their children in Maryland alone.

Baltimore, with its Cadillac abatement program, doesn't think much of education or of minimizing sources of lead other than paint. It may cost billions to fine-tune the present recommendations of the mayor's task force, but the task force's enemy is lead paint and only lead paint. In the unlikely event that we should ever learn to get rid of lead paint, the new trillion-dollar enemy will be lead in cigarettes, soil and toilet paper. It is a bit like trying to eliminate polio not through use of a vaccine, but by attempting the universal destruction of the polio virus itself.

Jack Reilly heads a private building inspection company in the Baltimore-Washington area. This is the second part of a series that ends tomorrow.

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