Lead paint policy to be reviewed Child must be ill before officials will enforce law

Livability code questioned

Dell calls for strengthening of 'weak ordinance'

November 19, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

A Hampstead child's exposure to lead paint has prompted the county to review a policy of waiting for a youngster to become sick before declaring a rental home unlivable.

County Commissioner Donald I. Dell said the way the county handles such a situation is flawed "if a child has to be poisoned before we enforce the [county] code." What the code says and how the county enforces it has created the problem, one woman said.

"The law does not apply unless a child is poisoned," said Sandra Corbin, whose 2 1/2 -year-old granddaughter was exposed to lead paint. "You have to take steps before a child is poisoned, not after."

Dell called for a thorough review and a possible strengthening of the county's livability code, which sets standards for rental properties.

"Personally, I think it's a weak ordinance," he said. "It's no answer if we have to let things go to the point where blood is drawn from a child. There must be some other way to determine contamination."

The county livability code, enacted in 1988, says a code official may inspect a property for lead-paint violations. If lead paint is found on surfaces accessible to a child, the landlord must find alternative housing for the tenants and have the paint removed by certified abatement contractors.

The county code and its policy differ sharply.

Although homes are inspected, usually at the tenant's request, Ralph Green, chief of the Bureau of Permits and Inspections, waits for the Health Department to determine lead levels in a child's blood before taking any action.

"A violation exists when it becomes a health issue," Green said. "The burden is on the Health Department. Lead poisoning exists when the Health Department says it exists."

Corbin, a licensed social worker, said in a meeting with the commissioners Monday that there is a gap between the code and the policy.

"The county has all the ordinances to determine whether a place is livable," said Quentin Banks, spokesman for the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Any home built before 1950 probably has lead paint, Green said. The policy was established as an alternative to considering every older rental property a potential problem, he said.

Corbin said the lead-paint problems at a Hampstead home rented by her daughter illustrate the policy's weakness.

Tristam Corbin and Antion Williams-Brown moved into the Houcksville Road home with their daughter in May. The family was displaced three months later, when MDE declared the structure unlivable, largely because of lead paint.

The 80-year-old home, owned by Randy Richardson and Bob Allen, had never been inspected for lead paint until Tristam Corbin notified the county of potential violations of the livability code. A county inspector cited the landlords on Aug. 1 for 35 code violations, including chipping lead paint.

While the family was still in the home, the landlords tried to remove the aging paint themselves, work neither was certified to do. Their faulty methods contaminated many surfaces and much of the family's possessions with lead dust.

An MDE inspector also tested the home and reported high lead levels. The home remains vacant except for the family's possessions.

Tristam Corbin had her daughter tested for lead poisoning. The child's levels jumped to 6 micrograms per deciliter, up from 4 micrograms, well below the 15 micrograms considered dangerous by the Health Department.

But researchers are constantly lowering the danger level, Sandra Corbin said.

"They removed the child immediately," she said. "You don't put a child at risk, especially when the potential for contamination is so great. Lead poisoning has long-term effects, and it does not go away. Even low levels can cause hearing and vision problems."

The landlords have since had the lead abated by a certified contractor at a cost of more than $8,000.

Tristam Corbin said she will not return to the home and that she has asked the landlords to cancel her lease. The couple have found another apartment and plan to move in about Dec. 1. The issue of their lead-contaminated possessions remains unsettled.

Sandra Corbin asked the commissioners for stricter enforcement of the code and annual inspections of all rental properties.

"Annual on-site inspections would make sure properties meet minimum state and local laws for livability," she said.

That proposal is costly and nearly impossible with the county's sole code inspector, green said. Rental license fees could pay for the inspections, Corbin said.

"Mrs. Corbin has challenged our policy, and we will review it," Green said.

Pub Date: 11/19/97

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