Lead law begins tomorrow, but rules questioned

September 30, 1994|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Staff Writer

Maryland's new lead-poisoning prevention law, due to take effect tomorrow, has been thrown into limbo as children's advocates and landlords tussle over state regulations intended to carry it out.

Citing complaints from pediatricians and others, Del. Delores G. Kelley, a Baltimore Democrat, has asked for a legislative hearing on "emergency" regulations proposed last week by the Maryland Department of the Environment to carry out the law.

"Everything's ready to go," said Ronald Nelson, deputy environment secretary. "If they want a program, we've got one for them."

However, the rules to put that program into effect, because of Delegate Kelley's request, are now subject to scrutiny by a joint legislative committee that won't meet until at the earliest late November.

If the committee does not approve the "emergency regulations," it could take six months or more to adopt rules under normal procedures.

The hitch has frozen the state's spending nearly $6 million in federal funds for abating lead-paint hazards in about 600 housing units, officials say.

At stake is Maryland's pioneering effort to reduce widespread lead-paint hazards while preserving dwindling low-income housing.

"These regulations break trust with Maryland's children because they will not ensure good cleanups," said Rena Steinzor, director of the University of Maryland's environmental law clinic, which represents poor tenants. She contends the regulations are unconstitutional.

The city's major landlords, meanwhile, have quietly lodged their own objections to the proposed rules, though their lobbyist insists his clients do not want to block the law.

"If this law gets delayed, it's because [children's] advocates don't like the regulations," said D. Robert Enten, lobbyist for the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore. "There's a lot of things in that law we don't like, but we're not trying to say we're not obligated to do them."

The new law covers 160,000 apartments and rental homes statewide that were built before 1950, when lead-based paint was widely used. Nearly half the rental housing in Baltimore is of that vintage, as are a third or more of the rental units in 11 rural counties.

Infants and toddlers who swallow even tiny amounts of flaking lead paint or dust over time can suffer impaired intelligence, learning disabilities and behavioral problems. Severe poisoning can cause mental retardation.

More than 14,000 children in Maryland under age 6 who were tested last year had elevated lead levels in their blood, and about 2,500 were poisoned enough to warrant medical treatment. Of those, nearly 90 percent were in the city.

Baltimore's landlords contend they cannot afford to remove lead-based paint, and they complain they are being driven out of business by mounting lead-poisoning litigation. Children's advocates insist that owners of older rental housing must do more to protect young tenants from the lead-paint hazards.

After years of wrangling between landlords and children's advocates, Gov. William Donald Schaefer and lawmakers last session worked out a compromise. If the owners clean up their properties, the law restricts tenants' rights to sue their landlords if children become poisoned.

Though originally willing to accept such a tradeoff, many children's advocates reacted with anger to regulations proposed last week by the state, citing an internal memo they obtained that notes "major changes" to the rules to answer landlords' objections.

The regulations say landlords must remove any chipping, peeling or flaking paint, then clean up using special detergents and vacuums designed to capture lead dust.

But a provision exempts landlords from existing state rules requiring safe abatement or removal of lead-based paint.

After cleanup under the new law, homes would not have to pass tests to ensure that there had been adequate cleanup of hazardous lead dust on floors and woodwork.

Mr. Enten and state officials point out that the legislature made such lead dust tests optional, and allowed for visual inspection only. But experts say lead dust may not be visible to the naked eye.

"You can have situations where a house appears to be very clean, not have lots of visible dust, and yet have lead-dust levels of concern," said Mark Farfel, director of lead-abatement research at Kennedy Krieger Institute. The training required for workers performing the cleanups is minimal, and many of the methods prescribed are unproven, he added.

Children's advocates say the state should conduct lead-dust tests of treated homes, even if landlords are not required to do so.

Inspectors will test for lead dust in at least some homes, Mr. Nelson said, but only to report the results to a state commission set up to review whether the law is reducing children's lead exposure.

Mr. Nelson said the state would act to require further cleanup or relocation of children who may be at risk from shoddy cleanups. But advocates noted that the regulations do not specifically say that.

They also object to a provision that would let the state approve, without public notice, alternative lead-reduction treatments that are not specified in the law.

"We want regulations, we just don't want to have regulations that may put children at greater danger," said Ruth Ann Norton, director of the Coalition to Prevent Childhood Lead Poisoning.

Under the law, landlords are supposed to register their properties with the state by the end of the year and begin paying fees to finance oversight of the cleanups.

But without regulations, it is unclear whether property owners can secure limited immunity from lead-poisoning lawsuits, and Mr. Enten said he did not know how landlords would proceed.

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