Officials launch assault on lead

O'Malley, Glendening begin effort to raise awareness of toxin

May 13, 2000|By Jim Haner and Gerard Shields | Jim Haner and Gerard Shields,SUN STAFF

Launching a campaign to curb lead paint poisoning in Maryland and its largest city, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mayor Martin O'Malley have unveiled a series of posters and placards that will soon begin appearing in buses, trains and movie theaters to warn parents about the dangers of the toxin.

"Lead paint is destroying the lives of our citizens, mostly our children," Glendening said yesterday at a sidewalk news conference in Northeast Baltimore.

"More and more evidence is becoming available every day," the governor said, holding up a copy of an article in Tuesday's Sun detailing new research into the links between lead poisoning, brain damage and criminal behavior.

With that, he and O'Malley stepped up to a Maryland Transit Authority bus parked along Ilchester Avenue and tore back the cover on a 6-foot-long banner depicting a wide-eyed little girl standing in front of a wall of peeling gray paint.

Paid for by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, the $50,000 banner campaign is targeted to reach more than 370,000 mass transit riders a day with the message: "Protect your child against lead poisoning."

The unveiling was the most visible of a series of anti-lead initiatives from the state legislature and the Baltimore City Council since a series in The Sun in January revealed that 7,000 children a year are exposed to the neurotoxin in the city's slums and that 1,200 are poisoned.

Most are African-American children living in the dilapidated rental enclaves of Park Heights, Sandtown and Middle East -- hot zones of lead contamination since at least the 1930s, records show.

Among the major efforts:

Glendening, who has pledged $50 million to fight lead poisoning over the next three years, said he has signed into law a requirement that landlords provide documentation to tenants vouching that rental properties have been inspected and declared safe.

The governor said he intends to sign another bill that would make it mandatory within three years for pediatricians statewide to test 1- and 2-year-old children for lead exposure.

O'Malley pledged his support for two bills before the City Council that would require pediatricians in Baltimore to begin testing toddlers immediately for exposure to lead, and that would require warning signs to be posted on any house where a child has been poisoned until the property is certified safe.

City Council President Sheila Dixon, who has emerged as Baltimore's most vocal lawmaker on the issue, introduced two more bills this week that would give city inspectors the power to obtain warrants for lead hazard searches and to share confidential data with state agencies tracking lead safety scofflaws.

O'Malley applauded Dixon, saying: "It's a concerted campaign -- a crusade to rid this scourge from our city, to make sure no child is [prevented] from doing well in school and realizing the American Dream."

Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, credited O'Malley with ending decades of inaction in city government, including more than 1,000 unprosecuted lead violations that are now being steered into court.

"When Mayor O'Malley took office, we didn't know how good it could be," she told the crowd gathered yesterday morning. "We have known about these neighborhoods for 50 years. Now something's finally being done about it."

Sitting on their porches overlooking the crowd, residents of the tidy rowhouse block nodded knowingly.

"It's about time," said Terrell Byrd, 37. "My friend's little boy -- 6 years old -- got lead poisoned. To him, paint chips, potato chips are all the same. The stuff is everywhere in this town."

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