Baltimore has disbanded its lead-paint abatement demonstration crew and laid off eight workers, citing fears that the city could be sued for improperly de-leading a home that might come to be occupied later by a lead-poisoned child.
Housing Commissioner Robert W. Hearn said in a statement issued yesterday that the city is "taking this step to avoid the possibility of liability actions stemming from abatement operations."
Lead poisoning is a health hazard that may threaten as many as 30,000 Baltimore youngsters.
But the head of a non-profit housing group said the city's departure from the lead abatement business might actually lower steep abatement costs for property owners by allowing for more competition among private contractors.
Eight employees of City Builders, a housing department division that also stabilizes vacant homes, were given letters yesterday informing them that their last day would be Nov. 22, said William Toohey, spokesman for the department.
The workers laid off are what remains of a larger crew of about 15 who had removed or covered over lead-painted surfaces in about 75 private homes over the past four years as part of a state-funded pilot project to test and demonstrate abatement techniques.
That pilot project ended this year, but Toohey said City Builders had been offered a $328,000 contract to abate lead paint in houses owned by City Homes Inc., a subsidiary of the Enterprise Foundation.
City Homes, which rents 175 rowhouses, had received a $350,000 state grant to remove lead-paint hazards from its properties, and the state stipulated that the municipal abatement crew be used.
The crew, shrunk through attrition, had been expected to perform 10 abatements for City Homes this year, said Toohey.
But that deal fell through when City Homes refused Baltimore's demand for total immunity from liability if a child moving into the abated homes later became lead-poisoned and the family sued for damages.
"If somebody comes in your house to do some work, why would you indemnify him? It's the other way around," said Barry Mankowitz, president of City Homes.
City Homes even offered to pay for insurance to cover the city abatement crew. But lawyers for the city, concerned that the insurance coverage was inadequate, insisted either that the city receive total immunity from lawsuits or get out of the abatement business.
James McCabe, assistant director of City Builders and one of those laid off, said the city's Law Department has "a heightened sensitivity" over lead-paint liability.
The city paid $100,000 last year to settle a lawsuit accusing the Health Department and present and former owners of a West Lanvale Street house of failing to act promptly to remove lead paint from a home where two children were poisoned.
One of the other defendants in that lawsuit was Martin P. Welch, a high-ranking attorney in the city Law Department who had owned the house along with two brothers.
The city's landlords have complained that they are being driven out of business by high lead abatement costs and an insurance crisis posed by upward of 3,000 lead-poisoning lawsuits filed against them. They are seeking easing of abatement requirements and legal protection from liability.
Lead poisoning is the leading environmental health threat facing American children, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The CDC recently lowered its lead-poisoning threshold 60 percent, based on new evidence of intelligence loss and development difficulties for infants and toddlers exposed to levels of lead far lower than those previously considered safe.
As many as 60 percent of Baltimore's children under age 6 could have enough lead in their bloodstream to be considered poisoned under the new federal standard. Deteriorating lead-based paint in older homes is one of the main sources of poisoning, and Baltimore is believed to have 200,000 homes old enough to contain lead paint, which was widely used before 1950.