Plan calls for stricter lead test standards

All children up to age 2 would be examined

February 29, 2000|By Ivan Penn and Jim Haner | Ivan Penn and Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

All children in Baltimore up to age 2 would be tested for lead poisoning under an ordinance introduced by City Council President Sheila Dixon yesterday. The law would also require doctors to report test results to the city Health Department for the first time.

Known as "universal screening," the ordinance would exceed federal and state standards in an attempt to detect and treat poisoning sooner in one of the nation's most toxic cities.

Studies have shown that lead poisoning is most prevalent among poor, African-American children living in substandard, inner-city rental housing built before 1974, when lead was banned for use in residential paints.

But lead paint was used so extensively in Baltimore that the vast majority of homes contain the substance. More than 7,000 children are exposed in the city each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lead is a potent neurotoxin that can cause lasting brain damage, hyperactivity, aggression and learning disabilities even at relatively low doses.

"The problems we are facing in our schools can be, at least in some part, attributed to our failure to protect our children from lead," Dixon said at a news conference.

Dixon also introduced an ordinance that would require warning signs to be posted on any house in which a child is poisoned until repairs are made. The proposed ordinances will be taken up in hearings, with a final vote expected in coming weeks.

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, city health commissioner, said the measures would address several long-standing problems in the system of enforcement and treatment.

Doctors are required to report to the state Department of the Environment all children who are found to have more than 10 micrograms of lead in a unit of their blood. But the state legislature has set an "action level" of 15, so the data are not reported to Baltimore for enforcement until it reaches that level.

Under the legislation, doctors would be required to report the results of all blood tests to the city Health Department up to age 7. It would be mandatory to test all children, ages 1 and 2, as part of their normal immunization.

Only children receiving federally subsidized Medicaid coverage are required to be tested. But a study by the U.S. General Accounting Office recently found widespread noncompliance by health maintenance organization providers hired by states to administer the program.

The Missouri attorney general's office has filed suit against two HMOs over similar allegations.

"These ordinances will allow us to sidestep a lot of these problems," Beilenson said. "It will be a local law, enforceable at the local level. We'll be catching these cases a lot earlier. And we'll be in a better position to spot trends and intervene sooner because we'll be keeping our own database."

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