Progress on lead paint

February 04, 1992

When health activists and landlords can agree to support a bill that would address the problem of lead paint poisoning, it's worth taking notice.

Dels. Sandy Rosenberg and Virginia Thomas have introduced a bill in Annapolis that would set up a lead paint fund to compensate poisoning victims and provide for prevention through better code enforcement. Modeled on the worker's compensation concept, the fund would substitute a predictable scale of reimbursement for the current practice of providing remedies through case-by-case litigation.

For years, children's advocates have fretted about the high lead exposure of many inner city children (who are tested for lead more frequently than children in other areas of the state). Landlords have worried about their liability in lead-poisoning lawsuits and the difficulty of getting insurance. And increasingly the city has watched as lead-removal orders have led to boarded-up houses instead of cleaned-up rental units. Yet nothing happened to address the problem in comprehensive, realistic ways. This bill, the product of several months of negotiations and compromises, could change that.

The bill would provide participating landlords with protection from lawsuits. In exchange, they would be expected to alert tenants to the dangers of lead poisoning and to provide information on how to avoid it. Moreover, the landlords would face random inspections of their properties to make sure that they are well-maintained. Proper maintenance -- such as not allowing old lead paint to peel and chip -- along with tenant education about the dangers and signs of lead poisoning, would help to lower exposure in many vulnerable children. That is a far better alternative than the current system in which prevention takes a back seat to litigation.

There is no such thing as a perfect solution to a complicated problem, and this bill is no exception. The compensation pool would be funded by a combination of assessments on property owners -- including a $5 annual fee on each rental unit -- and a tax on paint. But as paint manufacturers rightly point out, their product has been lead-free for many years, whereas lead was eliminated completely from gasoline only in the 1980s. Why not tax gasoline for this purpose as well? Good question, but for one thing gasoline is already heavily taxed for transportation needs.

Given the good this bill could do, the legislature should work diligently to find fair and adequate funding to support a program that promises real progress on lead paint poisoning.

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