Where is leadership on lead poisoning?

Children at risk: Maryland stands now as an accomplice in neglect of lead-threatened kids.

January 21, 2000

SUPPOSE the crippling scourge of polio rose again in Ruxton, Roland Park, Potomac and other enclaves of power and privilege.

Would the state of Maryland intervene for those kids? Would there be any higher priority for the use the state's $1 billion surplus? Could any tinpot committee chairman in Annapolis get in the way of needed legislation?

Would Parris N. Glendening, who wishes to be known as the education governor, fail to act expeditiously? And what of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who wishes to succeed Mr. Glendening?

Surely, action would be swift and well-financed. Think of the task forces marshaled to confront Pfiesteria.

Similarly, war would have been declared by now if lead poisoning were a problem of the well-to-do. Armies would have been mustered and battle plans unveiled.

Not so with the ruinous plague of lead paint poisoning in Baltimore, where children are repeatedly dosed by lead in houses that could be made nearly safe with the expenditure of relatively small amounts of money. Windows -- the major culprit in lead poisoning -- could be replaced in many inner-city houses for roughly $1,500.

Responsible landlords did precisely that with their houses, but as Sun reporter Jim Haner shows, major slumlords aren't responsible. They hire lobbyists to tell legislators that lead paint is too expensive to abate, and that pursuing landlords will drive them out of the market, leaving abandoned, unlivable hovels behind.

Despite that shameful argument, Maryland now has a strong set of enforcement laws and regulations. But these laws have gone unenforced. Not enough inspectors. Not enough money to hire them.

Not enough leadership.

For years, Baltimore's mayors failed to make lead abatement a priority. So did the city's health commissioner and City Council members.

Mr. Glendening says he is appalled to see so many Baltimore children in such well-defined neighborhoods are suffering the brutal impact of lead on physical, emotional and mental well-being. He says a plan is coming.

It needs to come now.

Where was outrage about lead in the governor's State of the State address this week? Why was the need for action missing from his speech? He had the bully pulpit. And he has the resources. Everyone wants a piece of the state's $1 billion surplus, to be sure, and the poor kids of East Baltimore don't make campaign contributions or have highly paid lobbyists. The governor, the lieutenant governor and Mayor Martin O'Malley must speak -- and act -- for them.

Children from the privileged enclaves of the state would not be so easily abandoned.

Lead from degraded paint -- sent into the atmosphere primarily when old windows are opened and closed -- leaches into bone, tooth and brain. It stays for a lifetime. If treated early enough, the damage can be minimized. But kids in East Baltimore "hot zones" are treated and returned to the same killer houses.

Who hasn't wondered why almost 20 percent of city school students require special education? This pervasive -- and preventable -- poisoning may help explain the phenomenon.

Mr. Glendening and the General Assembly have a splendid opportunity to act now. They have the surplus. They have public outrage. People see the vulnerability of defenseless children. And several foundations are ready to jump in with substantial sums - after the state shows its commitment.

The task will not be cheap. Mr. O'Malley has asked for $10 million to help relocate families from hazardous rowhouses. That's the crucial first step -- but it's only a first step.

Thousands of houses must be made lead safe. Some must be torn down. Some landlords need to be helped with detoxifying their property. Enforcement officers are needed to put meaning in the laws.

The necessary steps are well-known to the governor, the mayor and other interested parties, so waiting much longer for this or any other planning research is not necessary. Billions of dollars in lost productivity would be restored, experts say, if the brain damage associated with lead poisoning were prevented. Prevention is the only cure. Money can buy that cure.

And you know it would have been there already if the epidemic raged in Ruxton, Roland Park or Potomac.

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