Three-fourths of city homes have lead paint

March 10, 1991|By Tom Bowman | Tom Bowman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- Families with young children and a house with peeling lead paint might find solace in the Bush administration's $100 million low-interest loan plan to help the nation's homeowners clean up the hazard, part of its fivefold spending increase to attack lead poisoning.

Unfortunately, it will cost as much as $1.7 billion just for Baltimore alone to deal with its lead paint problem and upward of $70 billion nationwide, officials said.

"That's just not enough money to get started," lamented Maryland Representative Benjamin L. Cardin, D-3rd, who is drafting legislation to create a lead abatement trust fund through a tax on lead.

"I think that's woefully too little," agreed James McCabe, assistant director of builders with the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development.

Mr. McCabe estimated it would cost more than $1.7 billion to clean up the estimated 175,000 city homes -- up to 75 percent of Baltimore's housing stock -- containing lead-based paints. Mr. McCabe was uncertain how many of those homes include families with young children.

Another 57 million homes nationwide contain lead paint, with 9.9 million of those occupied by families with children under the age of 7, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The danger arises from the deterioration of lead paint into chips and dust that can be consumed by children.

Cleanup cost estimates range from $10 billion to $70 billion, government officials and health experts said.

Although banned in the late 1970s, lead paint is still prevalent in older houses and continues to be the main cause of lead poisoning -- "the No. 1 environmental hazard facing our children," said Health and Human Services Secretary Louis W. Sullivan.

Three to four million children under 6 years of age, or about 17 percent of the age group, have elevated lead levels, including as many as 350,000 children in Maryland. The children suffer lower IQ scores, behavioral problems and potentially irreversible damage to visual and motor skills.

The HHS and EPA last month unveiled strategies to reduce lead exposures that include public information campaigns, expanded screening and medical assistance for children, and research into more cost-effective methods to clean up lead paint.

"Many people think lead poisoning is a thing of the past," said Dr. Sullivan, announcing his department's strategy. "Our first task is to make sure everyone knows that lead continues, despite great progress, to be very dangerous to young children."

"There needs to be a greater awareness about it," agreed Amy Spanier, lead poisoning coordinator with the Baltimore Health Department. Those who renovate homes constructed before 1950 "could be creating a significant hazard," she said.

Polly Harrison, director of Child Health Services at the Maryland Health Department and a member of the Governor's Council on Lead Poisoning, said the public at large as well as physicians must be on guard for the possibility of lead poisoning.

Since the 1970s, the state has used federal Medicaid funds to pay for lead testing among poor children. However, for many other children, the decision to test rests with their own doctors. She added: "We've got to educate physicians."

Mr. McCabe called the move "an excellent idea," since the city's abatement efforts involve completely replacing lead-painted surfaces, an effective but expensive method.

However, others are concerned that the strategies and the Bush administration's efforts fail to address the central question: Where will the billions of dollars come from to remove the lead paint?

Although Assistant HHS Secretary James O. Mason told a Senate subcommittee last month that $710 million would be needed to begin a national lead paint cleanup program over five years, he referred only to "the efforts and cooperation of many federal, state and local agencies" to make the program work.

"Nobody faces up to the issue," said Karen Florini, senior attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund, which is pressing Congress to place an excise tax on lead to create a trust fund for lead paint abatement. A proposed $1.25 excise tax per pound over seven years would create a $10 billion trust fund that could be used by states for grants or loans for lead paint abatement.

However, Jeff Miller, a Lead Industries Association spokesman, said such "a punitive measure" would be disastrous for an industry whose product sells for about 40 cents a pound. It is also unlikely the anti-tax Bush administration would embrace such a plan.

"The polluter pays; they caused the problem," said Ms. Florini in defending the tax. She brushed aside claims that the lead industry would be doomed by the measure, noting that car batteries account for three-quarters of all lead used in the country. "People are not going to stop driving cars," she said.

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