In a bid to get more property owners to obey cleanup orders, Baltimore health officials are easing the requirements for removing hazardous lead paint from properties where children have been poisoned.
Seeking to break a political deadlock between the city's landlords and public health advocates, officials have decided to try a one-year experiment in which property owners will not be required, as they are now, to remove or cover all lead-based paint found in their properties.
The new guidelines, to take effect this fall, could significantly lower the $14,000 average cost of totally "de-leading" a three-bedroom rowhouse, which has been a major stumbling block to efforts to prevent lead poisoning.
The change is welcomed by the landlords, some of whom have evicted tenants and boarded up their properties rather than follow Health Department orders to remove or "abate" the lead-based paint found in their properties.
Stewart Levitas, president of the Property Owners Association, which represents most of the city's larger landlords, predicted that the average cost of partially de-leading a house under the new guidelines would fall to about $5,000, meaning more properties could be treated.
"I think it's going to be better for the landlords, and better for the tenants and better for the city in general," Levitas said.
Health advocates are not so sure.
Dr. Julian Chisolm, a noted researcher who treats lead-poisoned children at Johns Hopkins Hospital's Kennedy Institute, called the move "a regression" from regulations adopted five years ago to make abatements safer.
But others say they are willing to try relaxing the city's stringent requirements if that means more properties will get at least some of the lead paint taken out of them.
"Things are so horrendously ineffectual now and inoperative that almost anything has got to be better," said Anne Blumenberg, an attorney with the Community Law Center and a board member of the Coalition Against Childhood Lead Poisoning.
Identified by federal officials as the leading environmental health threat to young children in America, lead poisoning can cause intelligence losses, learning and reading disabilities, hyperactivity and other mental and physical problems at very low levels of exposure.
About 500 new lead-poisoning cases are identified in Baltimore every year, according to city health officials, but many more cases go undetected because of inadequate screening.
As many as half the children under age 6 in the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas could have harmful levels of lead in their blood, state officials estimate.
Deteriorating lead-based paint in older properties is the chief source of lead poisoning. Infants and toddlers can become poisoned by mouthing fingers and hands that have touched lead dust or paint chips on floors, windows and doors. About 200,000 properties, or three-fourths of the city's housing, were built before 1950, when lead paint was widely used.