State, city propose bill to require lead testing

Two sides differ on when children should be tested

February 12, 2000|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

All children in Baltimore would be checked for lead poisoning under state legislation recently introduced by city lawmakers, but supporters disagree over when to require it.

The bill, put in at the city's behest, would require every child's blood to be screened for the toxic substance upon entering public school.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden's bill -- and a similar House measure introduced yesterday -- would require the test results be reported to the state health and environment departments.

"We just want to make sure everyone is tested in the city," said McFadden, whose East Baltimore district includes a neighborhood with one of the highest rates of lead poisoning in Maryland.

Baltimore Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson welcomed the screening measures put in by city lawmakers, but said he hoped the bills could be amended to require testing children when they are toddlers -- the age most vulnerable to the effects of lead.

"By the time they get to school, the damage has been done," Beilenson said.

The universal screening bill is part of the O'Malley administration's legislative assault on the decades-old epidemic of lead poisoning in Baltimore. City officials have introduced two other bills that would:

Require landlords to post notices that their rental units have received state-mandated lead-paint hazard treatment;

Close a legal loophole that has let some city landlords evade responsibility for cleaning up lead dust and flaking paint in their properties.

Lead can cause irreversible brain damage, especially in young children whose bodies are still developing. Poisoning can lead to learning and emotional problems. At high enough doses, it can lead to retardation or even death.

Most poisoning is tied to deteriorating lead-based paint, which was widely used in homes before it was banned in Baltimore in 1951, and elsewhere in 1978. Infants and toddlers often become poisoned when they get lead dust and paint flakes on their hands and then put them in their mouths.

One in five city children tested in 1998 had harmful levels of lead in their blood -- 10 micrograms per deciliter or more. But only 31 percent of Baltimore youngsters younger than age 6 were tested.

The city bills would require a lead test as part of every child's pre-school physical examination. McFadden said the information could help schools identify children needing special education.

The House bill, sponsored by city Democratic Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, also would call for checking any child under 5 years of age who is hospitalized.

That is still too late to help many youngsters, Beilenson said.

He noted that City Council President Sheila Dixon plans to introduce an ordinance that would require screening all city children at the time of their first immunization, which normally occurs around 15 months of age.

Passage of state legislation might make council action unnecessary, but Beilenson said Mayor Martin O'Malley feels strongly enough about the need for screening that he is pressing at both levels of government.

Ruth Ann Norton, director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, agreed with Beilenson that screening should occur earlier than called for in the bills. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommend checking at ages 1 and 2, she noted.

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