"Here comes the 'Lead Man'!"
That's how residents of Baltimore's inner-city neighborhoods greeted Mark Farfel nearly a decade ago when, as a young graduate student, he collected thousands of dust samples from rundown rented rowhouses.
He was looking for traces of the toxic metal that was poisoning thousands of young children, most of them poor and black.
Now, as director of lead-poisoning-prevention research for the Kennedy Institute, the lean, intense Farfel is gearing up to return to the city's streets this month.
His mission is to help break the vicious cycle that allows young children to be irreversibly brain-damaged from ingesting lead-paint dust before action is taken to remove the hazard.
With funding from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Farfel is about to launch a three-year study looking for practical ways of repairing and maintaining older dwellings to reduce the health threat from the lead paint found in perhaps 75 percent of the homes in Baltimore.
"What can be done with houses before children get sick?" he asks.
The answer could help solve a problem that has plagued the nation's cities for decades.
A solution has become even more urgent now because of recent research suggesting that one in six American children under the age of 6 years -- and up to half of all young children in the Baltimore-Washington area -- could suffer learning and behavioral problems from low-level lead exposures far below the official poisoning threshold.
The cost of removing or covering lead paint in homes is a major stumbling block to preventing children from being poisoned, say officials in all levels of government.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 57 million homes nationwide contain lead paint. Testing and de-leading only the 3.8 million "priority hazard" homes -- where young children live amid toxic dust or flakes from deteriorating paint -- will cost $8 billion to $10 billion a year for the next 10 years, HUD says.
COST HIGHER HERE
The problem is compounded in Maryland because the average cost of de-leading a home in Baltimore is two or three times higher than the estimate used in HUD's national cost projections.
De-leading about 70 two-story rowhouses under the city's pilot lead-paint abatement program costs about $14,000 a house, according to James McCabe, chief of City Builders Inc., a lead-removal agency of the city's housing department.
The city's landlords contend the pricetag is often higher, and that abatements frequently cost more than the houses are worth. But, even at $10,000 per home, more than $2 billion would be needed to remove all lead paint from the 205,114 dwellings in Baltimore built before 1950, when the paint was used in most housing construction.
Ira C. Cooke, lawyer and lobbyist for the Property Owners Association, a group of the city's larger landlords, says such astronomical cost estimates show the folly of current city and state regulations requiring the removal or encapsulation of all lead paint in a home, even if the paint is not deteriorating.
"There's not enough money to take care of Baltimore City under these regulations, not to mention Hagerstown or Cumberland or La Plata, which have just as much lead paint," he says.
"No one is advocating total lead removal," counters Lawrence Ward, an assistant secretary in the Maryland Department of the Environment.
POISON IN THE AIR
Health officials point out that any lead paint is potentially poisonous because it "chalks" as it ages, giving off toxic dust long before the paint begins to peel. And tenants' advocates say that most homes they visit have obviously deteriorating paint, as well as other problems.
"I've never been in a house with a lead-poisoned child that was in good condition," says Barbara Samuels, a Legal Aid Bureau lawyer.
But even health and tenants' advocates acknowledge that public funds for lead-abatement are scarce, and the per-home cost must be reduced so prevention efforts can be broadened.
That's where Farfel's research comes in.
"HUD and everyone else is looking for a major excuse not to do anything," he says, and the high cost of abatement provides such an excuse.
One answer, Farfel says, is to emphasize prevention rather than a "Cadillac method" of abatement after a child has been poisoned.
Farfel plans to look at whether lead-dust levels can be lowered significantly by a variety of building repair and maintenance activities, ranging from frequent washing of windows, floors and other surfaces to sealing wooden floors with vinyl or polyurethane and replacing windows and other lead-painted woodwork.
He says he will evaluate different approaches ranging in cost from $1,000 or less up to $6,000 per home.
"My guess is we'll see a difference in lead-dust levels because we're building on things we've seen will work," Farfel says. "The question is, can you sustain it? And how much of a reduction will it be?"