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.
Health advocates are not so sure.
Dr. Julian Chisolm, a researcher 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. About 200,000 properties, or three-fourths of the city's housing, were built before 1950, when lead paint was widely used.
Under current regulations, when lead paint is found in a property, the Health Department cites the owner and orders the paint removed or covered within 30 days. But the deadline is almost never met. The Evening Sun reported in April that less than half the 1,046 lead-paint "abatement" orders issued in the past four years have been obeyed.
About 150 properties ordered de-leaded have been boarded up and apparently abandoned, according to Amy Spanier, the city's lead-poisoning prevention coordinator.
The new guidelines were worked out in private negotiations with landlords, health advocates, lead-abatement contractors and state environmental officials, Spanier said. The plan was endorsed last month by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke's lead poisoning prevention task force.
Under the new rules, health inspectors will check properties where children have been poisoned for lead dust and for obviously peeling or flaking paint, instead of conducting time-consuming X-ray scans of all surfaces in a property, looking for hidden layers of toxic paint.
If peeling paint and high lead dust levels are found, health officials will order an immediate cleanup and treatment of the hazards within 30 days. Owners will be ordered to repair or replace windows, doors, outside porches and other surfaces where lead-based paint is deteriorating.
If landlords do not comply, then a violation notice will be issued, and Spanier said that officials will begin enforcing the deadlines. The city now rarely fines or prosecutes landlords and homeowners who ignore lead-paint abatement orders.
But health advocates question whether the city will have enough trained inspectors to oversee the new, more flexible abatement guidelines. They recall that lead-poisoned children actually became sicker when properties were poorly de-leaded before the city tightened its regulations in 1986.
City officials say that Baltimore's share of a $450,000 grant to Maryland from the federal Centers for Disease Control will pay for four new people in the Health Department's lead program, including a new inspector. There are six inspectors now.
City officials still can order a complete de-leading, Spanier noted, if follow-up inspections find that partial abatement does not work. And properties so rundown that it would cost more to fix them up than they are worth could be ordered vacated and boarded up.
Health officials acknowledge, however, that they have not resolved another major problem -- the lack of "lead-safe" temporary housing for families during de-leading. City regulations require properties to be vacated during abatement, which can take four to six weeks or more now, because the work stirs up dangerous lead dust.
Landlords say it is not their responsibility to find tenants temporary shelter. Low-income tenants counter that they often have no place else to go, since other affordable rental housing in the city also is likely to contain lead paint.