Offensive against lead paint promised

Governor, mayor vow concerted action to strengthen enforcement

`The handcuffs are off'

January 09, 2000|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

After more than a decade of neglecting to enforce laws to prevent lead paint poisoning, city and state officials are poised to unveil an aggressive campaign to stop an epidemic that strikes more than 7,000 children a year in Baltimore.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mayor Martin O'Malley vowed last week to produce a joint "action plan" -- potentially worth millions of dollars in direct state aid to the city -- aimed at reducing the number of lead poisoning cases.

The move follows a bureaucratic foul-up in Annapolis in what was, until two weeks ago, a relatively obscure line item in Glendening's annual budget. The governor signed the document, unaware he was slashing more than one-third of the state funding that pays for the city's entire lead enforcement program.

The result: Baltimore's Health Department was left with just $500,000 for an already skeletal staff of six lead inspectors. The Glendening administration is now seeking to reverse that decision.

"The governor is already looking at ways to increase that funding, and increase it substantially," said spokesman Michael Morrill. "And soon, not next year. Governor Glendening is deeply concerned and committed to addressing this problem."

The initiative comes after a series of stories in The Sun just before Christmas revealed that slumlords in the city are easily circumventing Maryland's lead laws -- among the strictest in the nation -- because of breakdowns in enforcement at nearly every level of government.

Lead exposure impairs nerve and brain development and has been linked to higher incidences of suicide, criminal behavior, delinquency and poor academic performance in children. In cases of prolonged exposure or poisoning, the effects can last for years as lead is absorbed into bones and teeth.

Maryland's children are being dosed with lead paint at a rate more than four times the national average, according to the U.S. Centers For Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. And some 1,200 of them a year are being poisoned outright at a rate more than 15 times the national average.

Of the children exposed in Maryland each year, 85 percent live in Baltimore. More than half of those poisoned statewide come from three slum enclaves in the city.

"The governor was appalled to read about the number of lead poisoning cases coming out of these narrowly delimited neighborhoods of Baltimore," Morrill said. "And he contacted Mayor Martin O'Malley immediately -- during the holidays, in fact -- to begin formulating a plan to put an end to this threat to our families and children."

By then, O'Malley had already ordered his senior staff and Cabinet to undertake a "top to bottom" assessment of the city's enforcement system. Less than two months into his first term of office, the new mayor said he would announce the first wave of reforms within the next two weeks.

"We intend to bring some order to all this chaos and begin to make progress in a measurable way," O'Malley said late Friday night. "The city staff knows the handcuffs are off, and they know we expect to see movement and cooperation between the agencies that oversee this stuff.

"The fact that the governor has expressed such urgent concern over this issue is also a great help to us. It gives us cause for hope, and confidence that this can be done."

First on his "wish list" to the governor, O'Malley said, is $10 million to fund a campaign that would relocate families from hazardous rowhouses and clear the way for "mass demolitions" of blighted blocks that are sapping police, public health and social services funds.

Meanwhile, the mayor's agency heads have already begun to move. On Tuesday, Michael Wojtowycz, the city's chief of lead enforcement, was transferred to the animal control division and replaced by Norman Glenn, a senior manager in the Health Department with more than 30 years' experience in inspections and enforcement.

"The last few weeks have been the occasion for a lot of soul-searching," said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, city health commissioner. "And we felt it was time to place someone with more experience in that position."

Also last week, the Housing Department brought its first lead case to court in a decade, winning a $10,000 fine against a Northwest Baltimore landlord for failing to repair a house in the 4100 block of Hayward Ave. in which a child was severely poisoned in 1996.

"Clearly, landlords should see this as the beginning of an aggressive lead enforcement strategy in the city of Baltimore," said Denise M. Duval, chief housing prosecutor, who handled the case personally. "There will be more, a lot more.

"This is not just symbolic."

Credited with overhauling a moribund housing prosecution office staffed by just two lawyers, Duval now heads a team of 10 prosecutors forging through a backlog of more than 20,000 unanswered housing complaints and 1,100 cases of lead poisoning that date to the early 1990s.

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