Bush plan to tackle lead hazards described as inadequate Groups say lead-poisoning strategy needs more funds to fight problem.

February 22, 1991|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Evening Sun Staff

WASHINGTON -- Ambitious federal plans for combating childhood lead poisoning are under attack from lawmakers, environmentalists and health advocates because the Bush administration intends to spend only a fraction of what it says is needed to deal with the problem.

Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan unveiled a 5-year "strategic plan" yesterday aimed at eliminating lead poisoning, which he called the "No. 1 environmental hazard facing our children."

The plan, which officials estimate will cost nearly $1 billion, calls for expanded screening of children, removing deteriorating lead-based paint from older homes and apartments, and reducing other exposures to the toxic metal.

Low-level exposure to lead is blamed for permanent, irreversible loss of IQ, learning disabilities and other health and behavioral problems in young children and unborn babies.

Health officials estimate that as many as one in six children under the age of 6 still have harmful levels in their blood, despite dramatic reductions in overall lead levels in the last 20 years as leaded gasoline has been phased out.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly outlined at a Senate hearing his agency's plans to tighten regulations further limiting lead in drinking water and air and to map "hot spots" in cities and regions with high lead concentrations.

There were more than 500 lead-poisoning cases in Maryland in 1989, the vast majority of them in Baltimore. Many more cases go undetected, health officials say. Maryland has about 500,000 homes built before 1950 that are believed to contain lead-based paint.

Environmental and health groups praised the plan for highlighting lead poisoning as a major national public health problem needing federal attention.

But they criticized the administration's proposal to spend about $41 million on lead screening and abatement in the 1992 budget year as "wholly inadequate."

"It's going to take more than strategic plans to end the lead epidemic. It's going to take money," said Karen Florini, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund.

Don Ryan, executive director of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, said the plan appears "doomed to collect dust on a shelf" without more funding.

The administration's budget includes $25 million in grants to remove lead-paint hazards from privately owned housing, a first.

But the Department of Housing and Urban Development has estimated it would cost at least $2 billion a year to test and abate 3.8 million older private homes nationwide where its survey indicates young children are being exposed to hazardous levels of lead dust from deteriorating paint.

The administration also proposes to increase federal funds for lead-poisoning screening and prevention from $8 million to nearly $15 million next year, but even at that level, many cities and states still will not get federal help.

Increased funding for screening is needed, health advocates say, because only about 10 percent of young children vulnerable to lead poisoning are now being tested.

Recent research has shown that infants, toddlers and unborn babies suffer adverse health effects with lead levels in their blood as much as 60 percent below the federal poisoning threshold of 25 micrograms per deciliter. The federal Centers for Disease Control is expected to lower that threshold by this summer to 10 to 15 micrograms. Three to 4 million children are estimated to have lead levels of 15 micrograms or more.

The federal lead strategy, though, is targeted at detecting and treating the most seriously poisoned children first -- an estimated 250,000 with lead levels above the current federal standard.

Administration officials defended their spending levels, saying that state and local governments, corporations and individual homeowners must share in the costs of eliminating lead hazards in housing.

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