The Baltimore housing department abruptly ended its lead paint removal program yesterday and dismissed the eight workers in it, saying the program could open the city to a lawsuit should a child living in a house treated by the city subsequently come down with lead poisoning.
"The department is taking action to avoid liability problems," said Bill Toohey, spokesman for the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development. "The city has no way of indemnifying itself from this."
The lead-paint removal workers, who were to have been paid under a $328,000 state grant, were scheduled to remove lead paint from 10 Baltimore homes being renovated by the Enterprise Foundation, non-profit housing group. Yesterday, the workers were given layoff notices effective Nov. 22.
Lead paint abatement, in which paint that contains lead is either removed or sealed, is a pressing need in Baltimore and other older American cities with large numbers of houses constructed before the early 1970s.
Lead was once commonly used but is now banned as a pigment in house paints because it can lead to learning disabilities in children who eat paint chips or otherwise get it in their bloodstream.
Last year, the city workers stripped lead paint from 20 of the estimated 200,000 homes in Baltimore that contain at least some lead paint.
Mr. Toohey said Housing Director Robert W. Hearn ordered the program closed on the advice of City Solicitor Neal M. Janey.
Mr. Toohey said the state money is still available, however, and could possibly be used by a private contractor who is willing to take on the work.
"There are still funds out there, this just means someone else will spend them," Mr. Toohey said. "I don't want people to think the city is backing away from lead paint."