Promising new start on lead poisoning

Time to follow through: Governor and Assembly must demand immediate action and results.

April 13, 2000

ALONG WITH substantial -- and precedent-setting -- infusions of cash from the state, during the just-completed legislative session, a broadening coalition of forces deployed against lead poisoning got important new tools:

By law, children in lead poisoning hot spots must now be tested at ages 1 and 2.

Renters must get proof of efforts to reduce lead poisoning at the time they sign a lease.

One hundred new lead-abatement workers will be trained in risk reduction procedures perfected by Baltimore's Clearcorps, a highly successful program for making houses lead-safe.

More than $5 million was provided for hazard reduction, abatement of lead hazards and relocation of families while houses are made lead-safe.

Another $2 million will permit demolition of as many as 400 houses which cannot be put on the market economically or safely.

The Maryland General Assembly declined to provide an income tax credit for those who wish to deal with lead contamination, and the governor declined to provide $5 million for a window replacement program. The latter failure was particularly distressing because friction from old windows is a primary creator of the lead dust that poisons so many children.

All of the legislature's positive actions are long overdue, but the timing of their passage was propitious: Many organizations are committing time and financial resources to a problem for which the best remedy is prevention. Once a child is poisoned, particularly if that child does not get treatment and a lead-safe environment, the damage can be profound.

Comprehensive abatement programs in Boston, Milwaukee and Providence, R.I., prove that focused effort yields impressive results. This city's housing stock poses more severe problems than Boston's, in part because more of it cannot be freed of lead hazards without prohibitively high costs.

But an impatient, demanding new mayor, Martin O'Malley, and an energized health commissioner, Dr. Peter Beilenson, seem determined to improve the city's sad record of neglect in this area.

Before Dr. Beilenson and housing officials began to act recently, not a single lead-poisoning violation had been prosecuted in a decade. In the past month, 35 have been filed.

That is the sort of action Baltimore's children desperately need. City and state officials must make sure that the action doesn't stop with the passage of the new legislature mandates.

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