No easy route to lead-safe houses

Big money problem: A classic challenge to Maryland's role as protector of public health.

January 24, 2000

LET NO ONE be misled.

State government must cover the very significant cost of any credible effort to curb the epidemic of lead paint poisoning in Baltimore. The job cannot be left to poor families or to private philanthropic foundations or to a poverty-stricken city. The scope of the problem is too great.

Nor can it be done on the cheap. Enforcement alone will be futile -- as years of lax enforcement efforts and a model set of lead paint abatement laws should have made abundantly clear.

No one should mistake a few more inspectors for a real campaign against lead dust, peeling and chipping paint. Children will go on breathing it even as citations are written and court dates set, postponed, missed -- or even if a landlord is convicted.

The big money is needed for massive lead abatement efforts -- tax credit incentives for landlords, massive window replacement drives and education. In many cases, perhaps, families will have to be relocated while houses are made lead safe; some may need permanent relocation so houses can be demolished.

The area's private foundations are helping: They'll pay for a quick study of costs and a basic plan of action, for example; or they'll chip in for an outreach program designed to let pregnant women know the perils of lead for infants and helping the women find suitable housing.

The state may insist that any financial commitment -- as yet unspecified --- be accompanied by help from other quarters. It may. But the problem is simply too big and too urgent to leave it to private foundations and charities to do most of the work.

A historic moment could be at hand -- a striking legacy -- if the will can be found to seize it. The Sun's Jim Haner has shown where the pockets of toxic lead are most pronounced. Health officials say they can see now where to focus their efforts.

Baltimore has a dedicated cadre of advocates fighting against childhood lead poisoning. They know what to do about it. But they have been no match for the forces marshaled by landlords.

Any public figure who wishes to be seen as the liberator of poisoned children could step forward now.

Who will be the one?

No one expects a global assault in a single year. But Maryland has done more for the blue crab and the oyster than it has for the Baltimore babies who live in lead-infested houses.

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