State lead poisoning commission gathers the experts and watches them argue

December 15, 1992|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Staff Writer

It was billed as a chance to explore "new ideas" for solving the thorny problem of childhood lead poisoning.

But a daylong symposium yesterday sponsored by the governor's Lead Paint Poisoning Commission quickly revealed why the problem remains unsolved.

Scientists, housing experts and lawyers sparred before the 15-member panel over the feasibility and fairness of setting up a state "no-fault" fund for compensating children poisoned by ingesting toxic paint chips and dust in rented housing.

A lawyer representing lead-poisoned children warned that the state may wind up short-changing those injured youngsters while letting "a lot of landlords off the hook." Meanwhile, a Cleveland psychologist questioned whether lead poisoning was that big a problem.

In greeting the commission he appointed last fall, Gov. William Donald Schaefer called on all sides in the decades-old controversy to compromise.

"Your group must . . . walk the minefield to find a solution to prevent lead paint poisoning and save an industry," he said.

The no-fault system the commission is studying is intended to spare landlords from a rising tide of lawsuits while requiring that they maintain their apartments and remove lead-paint hazards.

The commission, which includes landlords, homebuilders, paint manufacturers and retailers, and advocates for the poor, is expected to make a report to the legislature and governor within a year.

But all agreed yesterday that the panel faces a daunting task.

Lead-based paint was used widely in older housing, and toddlers and young children who ingest dust or flakes from deteriorating paint suffer losses in IQ, as well as learning and behavioral problems that can last for years. Federal officials have said lead poisoning is the top environmental health threat facing children and have called for all youngsters to be tested.

In Maryland, the number of children being tested has nearly tripled in the past year, and the number of poisoning cases has practically doubled, said Patricia McLaine of the state Department of the Environment.

At the behest of Baltimore's landlords, the commission heard from an outspoken critic of the federal government's recent decision to lower the threshold for what is considered safe exposure to lead.

Dr. Claire Ernhart, a psychologist from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, contended that fears about widespread lead poisoning are "overdrawn."

She argued that scientific studies to date have been inconclusive on whether relatively low levels of lead in a child's bloodstream can cause lasting harm.

But her views were countered by scientists from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and the Environmental Protection Agency. They said that despite some inconsistencies, most studies found that even small amounts of lead pose a health threat for young children, whose brains and nervous systems are still developing.

Christopher Brown, a Baltimore lawyer who has represented families of lead-poisoning victims, questioned whether the state's economy and political climate would allow the state to raise money to compensate injured children for their loss of intellect and income.

But a spokesman for many of the city's largest landlords said a solution must be found, because many property owners are simply boarding up houses rather than take the risk of being sued.

"Everybody has got to work together, or nothing is going to happen," said Stewart Levitas, president of the Property Owners Association of Baltimore.

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