A family is caught up in a net of suffering 4 of 7 children are lead-poisoned in city rowhouses.

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

James Short wants to be a scientist when he grows up. The 9-year-old East Baltimore boy smiles dreamily when asked about it and says he wants to work with computers and "potions."

His mother says James is an eager student, but he is reading a year behind his third-grade classmates. He has difficulty with spelling, math and handwriting. He wears thick eyeglasses to help him see.

"On spelling, he gets a 56, and he's real excited," says his mother, Jennie Short. "I have to tell him, 'No, baby, you didn't pass this one.' "

James has lead poisoning. There is enough lead in his bloodstream to permanently damage his brain, despite repeated hospitalizations and painful medical treatments to purge his body of the toxic metal.

The lead from dust and flaking house paint that he inhaled or swallowed over the years has settled in his bones. From there, it leaches slowly into his veins, a timed-release toxin.

For Jennie Short, her family's four-year ordeal with lead was "like a nightmare," as they moved from one dilapidated city rowhouse to another, vainly seeking safe shelter. Three of her six children and a niece who lived with them were poisoned badly enough in the process to require hospitalization.

The worst seems over now. The family lives in a garden apartment off Pulaski Highway owned by the city Housing Authority. The apartment is free of lead-based paint.

And Jennie Short's three lead-poisoned children and her niece have won nearly $1 million in an out-of-court settlement with the insurance companies and lawyers for landlords of the four rowhouses where the family lived from 1983 to 1987.

The $967,500 settlement reached last fall is believed to be the largest ever in a lead-poisoning lawsuit in Maryland. But it is just one claim in a mounting pile of litigation; lead's tragic toll on children has spawned a growth industry for lawyers, some of whom advertise for cases in newspapers and on television.

Lawyers on both sides estimate that anywhere from 1,600 to 3,000 lawsuits have been filed in Baltimore alone by tenants and former tenants who claim their children were poisoned by dust or flakes from deteriorating lead-based house paint in their rented homes. One lawyer, Saul Kerpelman, says he has filed about 1,000 suits himself.

Most cases are quietly settled, for amounts ranging from $1,500 to $300,000, lawyers say. But the rising tide of claims, climaxed by the Short family's settlement, has prompted some insurance companies to cancel or not renew lead-poisoning liability coverage on city rental properties. And, without insurance, landlords may be held personally liable.

"There's a high percentage of landlords who are flying naked," says Kerpelman. "It's sort of bringing the problem to a head."

LEGAL PRESSURE

Stewart Levitas, for one, says that worries about the impact of lead-poisoning lawsuits on his business keep him awake at night.

"It can really eat you up, and I like what I do," says Levitas, president of the Property Owners Association of Baltimore, a group of landlords who own about 75,000 rental units. Levitas says he is the target of several suits. And he has been notified that he will lose his lead-poisoning insurance coverage, Levitas says.

No one, it seems, is immune from being sued in a city where 200,000 dwellings -- two-thirds of all the housing units -- were built before 1950, when lead-based paint was widely used.

The housing authority, the city's biggest landlord with more than 19,000 public-housing units, is defending itself against 14 lawsuits. Even City Homes, an arm of James Rouse's Enterprise Foundation that has acquired 170 rundown homes to rehabilitate them, was sued recently by a former tenant.

The legal wrangle has given rise to finger-pointing, with landlords complaining of "greedy, grabby lawsuits" while tenants' lawyers accuse landlords of being too greedy to spend what it takes to remove deteriorating lead paint from their properties before it poisons children.

Despite the size of the settlement in the Short family's case, C. Christopher Brown, their lawyer, argues that "the losers are the kids."

Jennie Short's 11-year-old daughter, Tasha Leak, seems fine now. But James, and Jennie's other son, 6-year-old Marcus Lowery, got unusually large doses of lead, and the damage done to their brains may handicap them the rest of their lives.

HIGH READINGS

James had a lead level of more than 100 micrograms per decileter of blood, four times the government's current poisoning threshold. (A microgram is one-thousandth of a gram.) At high levels, lead can cause convulsions, coma and even death. Marcus' reading was around 50 micrograms.

Each poisoned child was hospitalized for weeks at a time while undergoing chelation therapy, a process in which special drugs are repeatedly injected into the veins. The drugs chemically bind to lead in the bloodstream and carry the metal out of the body in the urine.

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