"It's the smaller owners, and the guys who have marginal inventories, who are having trouble right now," he said. "Unfortunately, the state has not enforced the law very well, and now it's sending out these confusing letters demanding full compliance in the next four months."
Shannon Cavaliere of ARC Environmental Inc., another major lead paint testing company, agreed.
"People are in a panic, especially the smaller landlords," he said. "We're getting a ton of inquiries and appointments as a direct result of the letters the Department of the Environment is sending out. I don't have any hard numbers I can give you, but our secretary would tell you the phone is ringing off the hook."
Landlords seeking to bring their properties into compliance with the rules have sparked a 138 percent increase in the number of lead paint dust tests analyzed by the state's largest privately owned lab.
"There's no question that the numbers are up significantly in Maryland - way up," said Jim Bland, president of METS Laboratories in Waldorf, which processes more than 10,000 test kits monthly from around the nation.
"We have seen increases every month for the past five months ... and most of it has been from the Maryland ZIP codes. Nationally, the numbers are up by about 20 percent. In Maryland, it's seven times that number."
Bland added that it's not just landlords who are worried.
"The stories in the newspaper have definitely had a huge impact," he said. "We're getting more calls than ever before from parents wanting to have their own houses checked."
"We're also seeing significant increases in the numbers of prospective home buyers having them done as part of their routine prepurchase inspections."
Backed by the threat of an unprecedented enforcement campaign expected to take hold in the first quarter of 2001, the new rules are being applauded by children's advocates and Maryland's largest property owners association.
But they warn that similar initiatives have failed in the state over the past 60 years - usually through a lack of sustained enforcement and resistance from real estate and landlord groups.
"It's another year later, and we're still talking about the lack of compliance among certain landlords who are giving us all a bad name," said Sam Polakoff, president of the Baltimore Property Owners Association, the state's largest landlords group. "The time for talking about this is over."
"The state only needs to get tough on a couple of these guys for everybody else to get the message," he said, "but the state still hasn't done that yet."
Polakoff's group tempered its historic opposition to lead control laws after winning concessions in House Bill 760 in 1994.
Under regulations that took effect two years later, landlords who comply fully are granted limited immunity from poisoning lawsuits that have cost the rental industry millions over the past two decades. In the event that a child is injured, the law caps payments at $17,500.
But Ruth Ann Norton, director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, notes that the law protects only landlords who are fully registered - and only if they have met the mandatory repair schedules.
For those who haven't, the law not only requires stiff fines but also creates a presumption of guilt in the event of a lawsuit.
"The bottom line is this: Landlords have had at least four years to come into compliance," Norton said. "And we're now four months away from the deadline, and we know that 85 percent of the most severely poisoned children in the city are coming out of rental houses that haven't even been registered yet, much less repaired. At some point, we've got to stop talking about it.
"What good is the law if we don't enforce it?"
Among other regulations, the following rules will soon apply:
By Feb. 24, 2001, landlords are required to have registered all rental houses built before 1950 with the Maryland Department of the Environment and to have removed and repainted all flaking, cracked or peeling coatings on at least half their units.
The agency also recommends that owners of rental houses built before 1960 participate if they want protection from liability.
Known as "full risk reduction," the state repair regulations require that windows and doors be able to open smoothly to prevent toxic paint dust from rubbing off through friction. Typically, this requires the installation of vinyl or aluminum liners in window tracks and wells - which research has shown are the most hazardous components in any old house.
To ensure that repairs have been done correctly, landlords are required to pay a certified inspector to perform either a visual survey of the property or a series of lead dust tests. A copy of the test results, along with an inspection certificate, must be presented to each tenant prior to rental.