Lead's lethal legacy engulfs young lives

Epidemic: With poison in their blood, thousands of Baltimore's children contribute to unsettled classrooms and violent neighborhoods.

January 20, 2000|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Kyle Bridges lay down in the middle of McCulloh Street on his way to school last October. He rested his too-small head on his book bag. And he told his little brother to go on without him.

"I'm sick of living," his brother recalled him saying. "I'm just gonna wait here till a truck comes and runs me over. Don't worry, I just want to die."

Kyle can barely read a word more than three letters long. He cannot do math at all, not even two plus two. He was in special education, but nothing the teachers tried or said seemed to stick. He was a playground outcast at Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary School, Booker T. Washington Middle and Highlandtown Middle.

Ridiculed as a "retard," he would lapse into confused and embarrassed gibberish. Under stress, he was prone to lash out at other kids, his teachers, his grandmother. For as far back as anyone can remember, he has had an explosive temper.

Kyle is 12 years old. His small body is loaded with lead, ingested in a succession of East Baltimore slum houses toxic with peeling paint and dust.

"Lead is associated with most of the problems this child has had in his life," says Dr. Paul Law, Kyle's physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital's Harriet Lane children's clinic. "And it's certainly the most consistent and prominent feature of his personal history. It's all over his chart."

Nearly a decade after the General Assembly passed one of the strictest laws in the nation to prevent the lead poisoning of Maryland children, Kyle is among the first generation of kids who were supposed to benefit. He is also living proof of how badly the state has failed.

Maryland continues to rank among the most toxic states in America, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, with more than four times the national average of lead-exposed children and more than 15 times the rate of lead poisonings.

The vast majority of them live in the slums of Baltimore, where invisible lead paint dust hovers in the air they breathe and clings to their toys, pacifiers and bottles.

Once ingested, lead inhibits a child's ability to absorb iron, one of the basic building blocks of brain, nerve and bone development. It also impedes a broad range of chemical transmitters that affect hearing, sight and perception.

The resulting brain and nerve damage, experts say, can trigger a cascade of secondary effects that include learning disabilities, hyperactivity, increased aggression and a greater likelihood of criminal behavior. While treatment can reverse some damage, long-term exposure can cause lifelong deficits.

In Baltimore, lead exposure constitutes an epidemic that strikes more than 7,000 children every year and is a contributing factor in the city's crisis of violent crime, failing schools and disintegrating neighborhoods, experts say.

But Maryland spends less than $1 million a year on enforcement to prevent the chain reaction of side effects in children that costs taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in special education alone, according to a state advisory board estimate.

Chronically underfunded, understaffed and outmaneuvered by a cadre of mega-landlords who control thousands of substandard rowhouses through shell corporations, city and state health officials acknowledge that they have been unable to make even modest progress in blunting the scourge.

As the Assembly reconvened last week, children's advocates, Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Parris N. Glendening began formulating what will likely be the broadest push for reform of Maryland's lead enforcement system in years.

The pledge of reform followed a series of articles in The Sun last month that showed how dozens of children were poisoned by lead in slum houses owned by a web of more than 70 corporations linked to longtime city slumlord James M. Stein.

Officials have cited the case as symptomatic of a breakdown in enforcement at nearly every level of government. But a continuing review of state and city records by the newspaper reveals an even more troubling trend.

`Killer blocks'

In the poorest quarters of the city, children are being poisoned over and over at the same addresses. And some families have been rocked by successive poisonings as they have moved through rental houses in the same neighborhoods.

Further, some streets -- such as the 900 block of N. Patterson Park Ave. -- have become infamous in neighborhood lore as "killer blocks." On this one stretch of 40 Formstone dwellings, at least 16 children have been poisoned, among them Kyle Bridges.

"Over and over again, we see kids coming out of the same houses lead poisoned," says Dr. Charles I. Shubin, director of children's health and family care at Mercy Medical Center, which manages a caseload of about 8,000 lead-exposed children.

"One generation after another, we see the same addresses, the same blocks, the same neighborhoods, the same landlords. Our kids are being poisoned while we watch."

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