Center for Lead-Safe Housing opens national headquarters in Town Center HOWARD COUNTY BUSINESS

December 03, 1992|By Adam Sachs | Adam Sachs,Staff Writer

Columbia has become the headquarters for a national campaign to reduce childhood lead poisoning.

The National Center for Lead-Safe Housing, in the American City Building in Town Center, opened in October with a $5.5 million grant from the Fannie Mae Foundation, which contributes to projects to improve the nation's stock of affordable housing.

The center is a collaborative effort between the Columbia-based Enterprise Foundation, formed by James Rouse 10 years ago to help develop low-income housing projects nationwide, and the Washington-based Alliance To End Childhood Lead Poisoning.

Children are likely to be exposed to unsafe levels of lead in urban or rural areas with deteriorating housing. Most houses built before 1978 have lead-based paint, said Nick Farr, executive director of the center. The substance generally is not a threat in well-maintained homes. It becomes a hazard to children when it is scraped or sanded into a toxic dust or deteriorates and peels in older homes.

Low amounts of lead can affect a child's nervous system and brain development. Lead poisoning can result in reduced attention spans, lowered learning ability and behavioral problems.

The Enterprise Foundation "brings a certain amount of status" to Columbia as a national organization aimed at improving living conditions for the poor, said Mr. Farr, an Enterprise Foundation vice president for the last six years and a Columbia resident.

Similarly, the new lead-safe housing center also will focus national attention here concerning the issue of abating lead hazards, said Mr. Farr. The fact that the U.S. Congress has earmarked $500,000 to the center to conduct research and evaluate housing is evidence of that, he said.

The center will focus much of its efforts on assisting the cities and states which will be awarded federal grants in the next few months to abate lead hazards in low-income housing, possibly including Baltimore.

The center will assess risks and identify hazards, develop an educational program and clarify standards for landlords. The center, with the help of a technical advisory committee, will work to develop methods for reducing lead hazards.

"We hope in the next few years to find out what kind of cost-effective approaches work, so cities and states can implement them," said Mr. Farr. "We have to keep costs down so landlords can afford to do it or it won't happen."

The Enterprise Foundation became more attuned to the problem when it discovered that a child contracted lead poisoning in a Baltimore row house Enterprise helped rehabilitate, said Mr. Farr.

"We thought we'd better find out what's going on and be safe," said Mr. Farr. "It's a major national problem and nobody's doing much from a housing point of view. The health and environmental fields have been pushing it."

Don Ryan, executive director of the Alliance To End Childhood Lead Poisoning, said the national center is a "milestone in the struggle to prevent lead poisoning."

"This is the first joint venture between environmental health experts and advocates and affordable housing experts and advocates," he said. "These are basically two worlds that don't tend to intersect. There are obvious tensions between environmental health and affordable housing goals."

The center will have about seven employees. It will use resources from the Enterprise Foundation and contract with consultants and technical professionals.

The center's mission will be to translate research and technical, financial and legal expertise into public policy to "bring about change in the real world," said Mr. Ryan. "It's different than a typical university-based research center where success depends on the number of scientific articles published."

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