Lead paint warning renewed

Baltimore City's top health official says threat is statewide

April 12, 2000|By Jim Haner | Jim Haner,SUN STAFF

Lead paint poisoning in Maryland may be worse than previously understood, striking children far beyond the disease's historic epicenter in Baltimore's ramshackle slums, City Health Commissioner Dr. Peter L. Beilenson said yesterday.

"People have this sense that if they don't live in the city, their kids are safe," Beilenson said. "So they don't have their kids tested, and they don't find out until it's too late. They need to understand, we all need to know, that this stuff is everywhere in Maryland."

His comments followed an address to representatives of more than two dozen charitable trusts and neighborhood groups yesterday morning at the Annie E. Casey Foundation for children in downtown Baltimore.

Beilenson said that after decades of inaction, the city has revamped its antiquated enforcement system in just four months and is rapidly progressing toward a system to detect even minor lead exposure in children citywide, prosecute scofflaw landlords and curtail a threat that affects more than 7,000 Baltimore toddlers a year.

He urged the group to attend hearings before a City Council committee at 5 p.m. today to support a pair of new bills aimed at forcing landlords to repair older houses that have been found to be toxic.

The first bill would prohibit the occupation of any dwelling where a child has been poisoned until it's beenmade safe, and require that warning signs be posted at the address.

The second bill, which would require universal blood testing for all 1- and 2-year-olds, likely will be superseded by a bill passed by the General Assembly that would establish a similar requirement statewide.

The measures were prompted by reports in The Sun in January that generations of children have been poisoned in rundown rental houses in Baltimore because of a lack of early detection and a near-total breakdown of enforcement by city and state authorities.

Dr. J. Julian Chisolm Jr., director of the Lead Program at Kennedy Krieger Institute and a senior consultant to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, applauded the universal screeningmeasure in a recent interview.

"There's very few pediatricians around these days who remember when this was a devastating disease," said Chisolm, who participated in the city's first mass-screening campaign in the slums of East Baltimore as a young researcher in the 1950s, when children were still dying of lead poisoning. "I have seen some of those same houses recently, and they haven't changed."

Advances in treatment long ago stopped the annual rash of brain-swelling deaths that attended the summer lead poisoning season, and a federal ban on leaded gasoline in the 1970s led to dramatic declines in overall lead levels nationwide.

Threat of brain damage

But research refinements also have proven that even relatively small doses of the toxin can cause permanent brain and nerve damage in small children, who typically are exposed by crawling in fine-grained lead paint dust and chips found in older homes built before 1960.

Lead paint was banned in Baltimore in 1951, and nationwide in 1978. But the state is home to more than 500,000 dwellings built before the prohibitions, and stocks of old lead paint lingering in tool sheds and basements were applied by property owners for years after the bans.

Furthermore, in a coastal state renowned for its boat-building and steel industries, officials have no way of knowing how many gallons of highly toxic marine paints pilfered by workers wound up on the walls of blue-collar homes that later became part of the rental market.

Marine paints often contained as much as 80 percent lead by volume when mixed into an oily paste that clung like cement. A poisonous residue can leach from the paint for decades.

Danger in older homes

Older frame and clapboard houses in rural parts of the state -- where systematic blood screening of children has rarely, if ever, been performed -- were slathered with layers of concentrated lead paint as protection against the elements.

Not surprisingly, a recent survey of CDC blood test records from Dorchester, Somerset and Wicomico counties by the Maryland Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning found examples of exposure in children well above national averages, said Ruth Ann Norton, director of the nonprofit group.

Chisolm said there is little reason for concern among parents living in newer suburban subdivisions, but that children are still poisoned even in well-maintained older homes in wealthier quarters of the state such as Guilford, Roland Park, Mount Washington, Annapolis and Silver Spring.

"You'll probably see some resistance to mandatory screening from pediatricians in those well-off sections, but they disregard the law at their peril," he said. "Those houses are loaded with lead, and it still sometimes gets into kids."

The proposed Maryland screening law is in keeping with recommendations from the CDC, he added, and makes the state among the first to adopt the protocol.

Some in the audience questioned whether charities should throw their millions behind an effort to further reduce lead levels that already appear to be in decline with the removal of lead from gasoline.

Norton replied that while lead levels have declined across the general population, thousands of children -- mostly black and poor -- continue to live in toxic enclaves across the state that have received little attention over the decades.

"These kids continue to be exposed every day," she said.

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