Prevention seems to produce more problems VICIOUS CIRCLE OF POSISONING

April 29, 1991|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Evening Sun Staff

PUBLIC-HEALTH advocates and landlords differ heatedly on most issues concerning lead poisoning, but they agree on one thing: The current prevention system doesn't work.

Government efforts to protect tenants from lead-based household paint have been "an unmitigated absolute failure," says Ira C. Cooke, lobbyist for the Property Owners Association of Baltimore, an organization of the city's larger landlords.

Health advocates don't go that far, but they do say that local and state governments lack the money and political will to deal with the problem.

"I don't think the city or the state, or anybody, is really committed to preventing lead poisoning," says Ellen K. Silbergeld, a University of Maryland toxicologist who chairs the state advisory council on lead poisoning.

James Keck, former lead-poisoning-prevention coordinator for the city, agrees.

"I go around the country and people say, 'Yeah, I understand Baltimore is way out in front on this issue,' " says Keck, who is now a consultant on lead-abatement training. "I say, 'If we're way out in front, I pity the rest of the country.' "

The Evening Sun has found that the problem of lead poisoning produces a vicious circle of "Catch 22s" that government cannot seem to break. It goes like this:

Children are poisoned, their homes are deemed unsafe, their families often evicted. Then, because no one wants to foot the bill for abatement or find new homes for the tenants, the cycle begins again -- sometimes in the same house.

"We've got to stop using children as lead detectors," says Kim Turner, coordinator of Parents Against Lead, a group of Baltimore families whose children have been poisoned.

Health advocates say government officials are as ineffective at responding to lead poisoning as they are at preventing its occurrence in the first place.

Consider the following:

* Only a fraction of those Maryland children most at risk of lead poisoning are tested, despite medical experts' recommendations that all young children be screened.

* Local and state agencies check a home for lead paint only after a poisoning, meaning that a child may already have suffered permanent brain damage.

* In Baltimore, home of most of the state's lead-poisoning cases, fewer than half of the homes where poisonings occurred in the past four years have had their lead paint removed or covered over, as required by city regulations.

Instead, many lead-laced homes have been boarded up and abandoned, worsening the city's severe shortage of low-income housing. Others are occupied months or years later, still exposing young children to poisonous paint dust.

PROBLEMS HAVE PERSISTED

These problems are not new. Many were outlined in a state health department report to the General Assembly in 1984 that urged a campaign to virtually wipe out lead poisoning in Maryland by 1995. After seven years, the goal seems as elusive as ever, however. Some of the report's recommendations have been followed, but the more sweeping proposals -- such as mandatory screening of all young children -- have not.

"I think our hope that we might be able to eliminate this as a problem in the near future is . . . going to be very difficult to realize," says Dr. Katherine Farrell, who helped write the 1984 report and now works in Anne Arundel County's health department.

In recent years, city and state efforts to combat lead poisoning have been handicapped by a lack of funds and by the reluctance of government officials to act boldly. But it was not always so; Baltimore's health commissioner banned the use of lead paint in homes in 1951, 26 years before the federal Consumer Products Safety Commission enacted a similar ban nationwide.

In 1986, the city adopted tough regulations designed to make de-leading less dangerous and more effective, after Johns Hopkins medical researchers demonstrated that many Baltimore children were being re-poisoned by inadequate removal of lead paint using traditional methods. The state followed suit in 1987 with similar rules governing lead abatement projects elsewhere in Maryland.

But Baltimore landlords complain now that the regulations actually have compounded the problem, by making abatement so expensive that few owners attempt it. The costs of abatement have soared, from about $800 per home a decade ago to more than $10,000 for many dwellings today.

LANDLORDS SEEK RELIEF

As health officials push for an all-out fight against lead poisoning, the city's landlords have launched a counterattack, seeking relief at City Hall and in Annapolis from "draconian" abatement requirements and from hundreds of lawsuits filed by tenants with poisoned children. Claiming they too are victims of lead poisoning, landlords are staging what one called a "silent riot," selling off their houses or evicting tenants and letting the homes sit vacant rather than comply with orders to get the lead out.

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