Bill may curb lead poisoning's deadly toll

February 27, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Every week, doctors discover harmful traces of lead in the blood of more than two dozen children in Maryland.

Every month, lawyers in Baltimore file a dozen lawsuits for youngsters allegedly poisoned by lead-based paint in their rented homes.

Every year, landlords in the city board up lead-laced properties. Removing the lead paintcosts too much, they say, and insurers no longer will protect them from the claims of litigious tenants.

Now, many state officials and legislators hope to stop this cycle of lead-related brain damage, costly court cases and urban blight. They are pushing for a compromise solution to what some call "twin tragedies": childhood lead poisoning and the disappearance of affordable housing.

"Never have we been so close," Gov. William Donald Schaefer said last week, pointing out that the city and state have grappled with the lead problem for more than two decades.

Driven by fears of wholesale shuttering of older rental housing, his administration has introduced a bill in the General Assembly that aims to reduce lead-paint hazards while keeping landlords in business.

"The crime here is, we can prevent lead poisoning, and we're not doing it. We can prevent most of the lawsuits, and we're not doing it," said Donald G. Gifford, dean of the University of Maryland law school and chairman of the governor's Lead Paint Poisoning Commission.

Children's advocates and landlords agree that the bill, based on the commission's recommendations, provides a basis for breaking the political logjam over this emotionally charged issue.

But key differences remain, which could stymie this latest effort. Those disputes dominated a six-hour hearing before the House Environmental Matters Committee in Annapolis last week, attended by more than 200 children's advocates, landlords, health and housing experts -- and one family driven from their home in the city several years ago by lead.

Paula Ehrmann, wife of former Baltimore Colt Joe Ehrmann, recalled for the committee how she was shocked to learn from her doctor that her two young sons had elevated levels of lead in their blood.

First she cried, and then she packed a suitcase and took her children to her mother's house.

Mrs. Ehrmann, whose husband runs a Christian ministry in East Baltimore, said she is not sure how the children became poisoned. Their home in the city was in good condition, she said, but inspectors found lead paint on the wooden molding. The family now lives in Catonsville.

"I was lucky enough to get help," her son Barney, age 6, told the committee.

"We were able to pack up and leave," explained Mrs. Ehrmann. But low-income parents are "really powerless," she added, because they often cannot afford to move to safer housing.

Sometimes the lead problem is visible, in the form of peeling and flaking paint on surfaces. But toxic lead dust can be produced by repainting or renovation, or simply by opening and closing lead paint-coated windows and doors.

Children exposed to lead for long periods often suffer permanent brain damage and develop learning disabilities, which can lead to behavioral problems, doctors say. Some severely poisoned youngsters even become mentally retarded.

What used to be seen as mainly a Baltimore problem is being discovered statewide. More than 90 percent of the 1,413 lead-poisoned children detected by 1992 lived in the city, but health officials say relatively few poisoning cases have turned up in the counties because only a small fraction of the children at risk there are screened by blood tests.

Nearly half the rental housing in the city was built before 1950, when heavily leaded paint was commonly used. And a third or more of the rental units in 11 rural counties are of similar vintage. In 1978, lead paint was banned in the United States.

"By ignoring the problem, we condemn Baltimore city and the rural areas to children [who] are not as bright and [who are] more disruptive in classrooms," said Mr. Gifford.

"We can't afford not to solve this problem," said Jacqueline H. Rogers, state secretary of housing and community development.

With screening so spotty and potentially hazardous housing widespread, officials estimate that, statewide, as many as 4,000 children 6 years old or younger are poisoned in any given year.

State and local laws now require that lead-based paint be removed or covered whenever a child becomes poisoned. But cleanups are few; landlords contend they cannot afford it because the cost often exceeds the value of older homes.

"The current system clearly does not work," said Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who supports the compromise plan. "Too many properties are being abandoned. Too many children are becoming poisoned."

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