Baby lived in home with lead why it happened is in dispute

Parents cite landlord, who blames them

suit filed against Md.

January 16, 1996|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Another article yesterday misstated the level of lead in the bloodstream of Briana Hines, a 2-year-old West Baltimore child whose parents are suing the state. The child's original lead level was 39 micrograms per deciliter.

The Sun regrets the errors.

In the case of Briana Hines, only one thing is clear: A bright, cheerful 2-year-old lived for more than a year in a home that was slowly poisoning her.

Why that happened is in dispute.

Her parents, Andre and Bertha Hines, contend their landlord "dragged her feet" in fixing the peeling lead-based paint that was likely poisoning Briana in their West Baltimore rowhouse. Melva Greene, their landlord, counters that the Hineses are mostly to blame for the delay in repairs.

FOR THE RECORD - CORRECTION

The dispute is all too typical of the bickering between tenants and landlords over who bears responsibility for the hundreds of children poisoned by old lead paint every year in Maryland.

Early this month, the controversy escalated, as the Hineses and two other Baltimore families filed suit challenging new Maryland lead-paint regulations. They contend that loopholes in the rules could result in the poisoning of thousands of children.

"The law is so vague it lets landlords get away with doing nothing," said Mr. Hines, 32, a former manager of a copying shop who now is unemployed.

Lead is a toxic metal that can rob children younger than 6 of their intelligence. Swallowing even tiny doses can cause lifelong learning disabilities and behavioral problems.

Briana, bright and cheerful, does not appear to be affected by her lead poisoning. But Mrs. Hines said experts advised her that damage to her daughter's learning ability may not show up until the girl is ready to start school four years from now.

The main source of childhood lead poisoning is paint. Lead commonly was used in paint before 1950. It has been banned for household use since 1967, but still is found in many older homes, including 159,000 rental units in Maryland built before 1950.

When intact and painted over by layers of latex or oil paint, it poses little hazard. But peeling, flaking or chipping paint -- and improper repair work -- can generate enough lead dust to poison youngsters, especially infants and toddlers, who often put fingers and hands in their mouths.

At issue in the lawsuit are new state regulations intended to carry out what was billed in 1994 as a pioneering lead-poisoning prevention law.

The law was adopted to solve two problems at once: reducing lead-paint hazards in older rental homes, while preserving a dwindling supply of affordable housing in Maryland.

Landlords want protection from hundreds of lawsuits filed by current and former tenants who claim their children were poisoned by lead paint. The Hineses have not sued their landlord for damages, though they have refused Ms. Greene's request that they sign away their right to sue.

"I'm not interested in the money," Mr. Hines said. "I'm interested in my daughter's health."

Under the law, landlords would be shielded from litigation if they reduce lead-poisoning risks in their properties, mainly by repainting or covering surfaces that have chipping, flaking and peeling paint. If children become poisoned anyway, landlords must abate the hazards promptly and also offer to pay up to $7,500 in medical expenses.

The regulations, adopted in November by the Maryland Department of the Environment, generally require landlords to follow safety precautions when scraping or treating lead-painted surfaces. For instance, tenants may have to be relocated and lead dust generated by work should be cleaned up using special high-efficiency vacuum cleaners and phosphate detergent.

However, the rules would exempt landlords from having to follow all safety precautions when performing plumbing or electrical repairs or when doing "routine" maintenance that disturbs no more than 25 square feet of paint in any room.

D. Robert Enten, lawyer for the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore, said the law was not meant to require costly precautions for minor disturbances of paint.

But Joseph B. Espo, one of the lawyers who brought the lawsuit in Baltimore Circuit Court, said the exemption would allow landlords to scrape and repaint windows and woodwork without having to clean up potentially poisonous dust and lead paint flakes generated by the work.

Briana Hines' ordeal began in September 1994, when she was 1. A test detected a dangerously high lead level in her bloodstream. The toddler had 39 micrograms of lead per 1,000 deciliters of blood, high enough that doctors advised that the child might need to be hospitalized. Mrs. Hines said they took her to Kennedy Krieger Institute in Baltimore for outpatient treatment.

They also informed their landlord. Mrs. Hines, working as a temporary laboratory technician, said Ms. Greene balked at fixing the deteriorating paint, crumbling plaster and other problems in the house.

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