4 children's lead levels exceed U.S. standard

October 01, 1994|By This article was written and reported by Sun staff writers JoAnna Daemmrich, Eric Siegel, Melody Simmons, Jonathan Bor and Norris P. West.

Blood tests on 13 children living in Baltimore public housing apartments cited for lead contamination show that four have levels of the toxin in their blood that exceed the federal safety threshold.

The tests, conducted at the request of The Sun by the University of Maryland and the Kennedy Krieger Institute, found the concentrations are not high enough to cause health problems but do require continued monitoring.

The other nine children had measurable lead in their blood, but medical authorities consider the levels safe.

Despite the apparent lack of health consequences in those tested, interviews with their parents and housing officials confirm that some children lived in freshly repaired apartments that contained lead dust for as long as several months before the units were found to be free of contamination.

Federal auditors recently concluded, after a seven-month investigation, that the Baltimore Housing Authority knowingly exposed the families to dangerous levels of lead paint and dust. The authority did not notify residents of test results and housed children with elevated lead levels in potentially hazardous apartments, according to the audit by the regional inspector general for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Daniel P. Henson III, the city housing commissioner, is vehemently disputing the lead findings, which are among seven key deficiencies that were found in virtually every area of the authority's operations.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke said the test results showed higher lead levels than he would have liked but that he was relieved that the children did not require anything beyond more frequent monitoring, said his spokesman, Clinton R. Coleman.

In a statement he issued yesterday afternoon, Mr. Schmoke said, "I'm very concerned about the problem of lead poisoning. I certainly would never authorize an action that knowingly exposes children to high levels of lead poisoning, and I hope that none of my actions would ever unintentionally expose children to such hazards."

City housing officials said they demanded that the contractors clean up the units shortly after they failed tests for lead dust. They provided documents showing that the units then passed follow-up tests, but residents of two of the apartments contend that they weren't cleaned up.

It is unclear to what extent, if any, the contamination detected in the homes last fall contributed to the elevated lead levels in the four children's blood. Local authorities on lead say the levels also could have been caused by exposure at day care centers, schools or playgrounds, or by drinking water with high amounts of lead. Mr. Henson and city health officials seized on the results of the tests conducted by The Sun to bolster their contention that the children were not harmed by any exposure to lead dust in the public housing apartments.

"My conclusion is that the Sunpapers have done the Housing Authority a favor by going out and having the residents of these properties checked," said Deputy Health Commissioner Elias A. Dorsey. "You found out that there isn't the problem that the auditors tried to make it out to be."

The children tested lived in four of nine apartments cited by federal auditors for containing hazardous levels of lead dust. Ten of the children moved into the apartments several weeks to five months before the authority tested for lead dust.

City health officials, who are notified of blood tests analyzed by the state, say they have no record showing that any of the 13 children had undergone earlier screenings for lead. Mothers of the 13 children said that some were screened for lead and that the results showed safe levels.

The four children, whose lead levels exceeded a federal standard set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), range in age from 3 to 7. Tests conducted Sept. 23 and Monday found levels from 10 to 13 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood.

The CDC, which adopted new lead standards three years ago, recommends that children with levels between 10 and 14 micrograms be retested periodically to make sure the problem doesn't get worse.

"These are well within what is generic for the city of Baltimore," said Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, a toxicologist and lead researcher at the University of Maryland Medical Center. If any of the children show comprehension or behavioral problems, she said, "it would be difficult to say it's from lead."

Dr. Ozzie Taube, a pediatrician at Sinai Hospital, said he tries to reassure parents about blood tests a few points above the CDC threshold.

"If you're driving 57 miles an hour, it's above the speed limit, but it's not a terrible thing," he said. "That's what I say to people with a 12 or a 13. The bad side is that they're labeled with lead poisoning. Besides making sure it doesn't go up, nothing else is done."

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