Lead fight takes wide approach

City, state, federal agencies coordinate anti-poisoning efforts

A $3.1 million boost

Baltimore prosecutes landlords, seeks to raise awareness

March 23, 2000|By Gerard Shields | Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Baltimore accepted $3.1 million in state and federal grants yesterday to help reduce lead-paint poisoning, the latest action in what has become a far-reaching, coordinated government attack on the problem.

On Tuesday, city health and housing officials met to discuss other efforts under way to reduce lead poisoning among poor children, including:

The first city prosecution of landlords with lead-paint violations. With an attorney assigned to work with State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy's office, the city's Department of Housing and Community Development has begun taking landlords with outstanding lead-paint violations to court. The city has filed 29 cases and expects to have 50 filed by the end of April. The first dozen cases have ended with landlords entering consent decrees to relocate tenants, clean up their properties or sell them to buyers with the resources to address the problem, Health Department officials said.

A media campaign to heighten awareness of lead poisoning. Money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will be used to produce advertisements with slogans such as "Get the Lead Out" and "Kids Run Best Unleaded" throughout Baltimore. Signs featuring the slogans are expected to start appearing on city buses after April 1.

The U.S. attorney's office is expected to enter into an agreement this week that will provide federal investigators to track down out-of-state landlords with multiple Baltimore properties containing lead contamination. The effort, which has been effective in other cities, will focus on about 2,000 Baltimore properties. Many of the decrepit rowhouses that contain the poisonous material are held in corporate entities created by slum landlords, some of whom have been implicated in dozens of cases.

Other efforts include legislation aimed at identifying lead poisoning, which is pending in the General Assembly and City Council. The city and state are proposing universal lead screening of children. The state proposes giving lead inspection certificates to tenants, and the City Council wants warnings to be posted at contaminated homes.

Mayor Martin O'Malley and Dr. Peter Beilenson, the city's health director, have hired a coordinator to maintain contact with the state and federal governments and other city agencies.

The broad government effort comes three months after stories in The Sun showed how Baltimore children were being poisoned in lead-contaminated rental houses.

More than 7,000 children are exposed to lead-paint dust and chips in Baltimore each year, and 1,200 are poisoned. The cases account for 85 percent of those reported in the state, making Baltimore one of the most hazardous cities in the nation in terms of lead, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Most of the victims are poor, black children in inner-city neighborhoods such as Park Heights, Sandtown-Winchester and Middle East. More than two of every five children poisoned statewide come from those neighborhoods, city Health Department records show.

`It's encouraging'

For seven years, Ruth Ann Norton has been director of the Coalition To End Childhood Lead Poisoning. Although she remains concerned about whether the state financial commitment will be enough, Norton commended Gov. Parris N. Glendening and O'Malley yesterday for directing city and state resources to the problem.

"It's encouraging and very energizing," Norton said. "Our goal is to put ourselves out of business."

Norton lauded O'Malley in particular for meeting his pledge to attack the lingering problem, mostly found in homes built before 1951. The city has pledged $18 million over three years.

"So far, they have followed through on everything they said," Norton said. "And that's all you can ask."

City, state and federal enforcement efforts had lacked coordination. Last month, Glendening and O'Malley vowed to end childhood lead poisoning by pledging to spend $50 million jointly during the next three years in a major effort to rid the city of dilapidated housing contaminated with lead-based paint.

Although the HUD funding accepted by the city Board of Estimates yesterday is part of a continuing grant, Beilenson said the city will spend the money more efficiently as a result of the attention directed at the problem.

"We're going to be using this money more targeted instead of scattershot," Beilenson said.

Maryland's lead-paint law is considered one of the strictest in the nation, but the state hasn't provided adequate funds to enforce it, officials say. It requires that landlords register their properties with the state Department of the Environment, clean up lead-paint hazards and submit to safety inspections before renting to families with children.

Of the $2.9 million accepted for the city Health Department yesterday, $1.3 million will be dedicated to a housing lead abatement program operated by Baltimore Healthy Start Inc. A $200,000 grant from the state Department of the Environment will be used to notify residents of elevated levels of lead in their blood.

City officials learned yesterday that a landlord being prosecuted for lead violations had agreed to relocate tenants and turn his property over to the nonprofit Historic East Baltimore Community Action Coalition.

"In the cases we're trying, we're getting results," Deputy Housing Commissioner Denise Duval said. "It's definitely working."

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