On the eve of a major enforcement campaign against scofflaw landlords who violate city and state lead paint safety regulations, officials reported yesterday that prosecutions have already more than doubled in the past year.
Jane Nishida, Maryland secretary of the environment, said her agency has levied some $425,000 in fines against rental property owners who have failed to register their units and clean lead paint hazards.
The agency has hired four new inspectors and two full-time prosecutors to handle an expected crush of new cases when a state law known as House Bill 760 goes into full effect next month. More than half the state's landlords are believed to be out of compliance.
Nishida outlined the state's enforcement actions at a lead safety rally in Annapolis yesterday.
The gathering brought together civic activists from the state's three most populous counties and the state's highest-ranking health and safety officials for a daylong conference on efforts to rid Maryland's housing stock of the brain-damaging toxin commonly found in homes built before 1960.
"Last year, we accomplished more in the fight against lead paint poisoning than we had in the preceding 10 years," Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley told the crowd. "And you ain't seen nothing yet."
Under new laws passed by the Maryland legislature and the Baltimore City Council, O'Malley reported that 482 toxic houses were posted with mandatory hazard warnings and barred from being occupied; 125 were stripped of lead paint; about 120 city lead violations were prosecuted - the first such court action against scofflaw landlords in more than a decade; and an unprecedented mandatory blood-testing program took effect that will screen all Maryland children for lead exposure at ages 1 and 2.
City Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson offered an overview of his agency's new "Lead Stat" system - a computer-mapping and data analysis program that allows city and state enforcers for the first time to share information on violators.
"Our agencies are now coordinated to swarm all over them," O'Malley added.
Still in `reactive' mode
Beilenson cautioned that the enforcement system is "reactive," targeting hazardous properties and negligent landlords only after a child has been reported poisoned. "A year ago, we were using kids as guinea pigs," he noted, "and we still are. We have not reached the point yet that we're going after problem houses before the harm is done."
Georges Benjamin, secretary of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said, "I am absolutely incensed that we continue to worry about how to get the lead out of our kids, instead of focusing on getting the lead out of the environment."
Dangerously high doses
Annually, about 7,000 Baltimore children are exposed to potentially harmful doses of lead paint dust and chips, including 1,200 who receive doses high enough to cause almost certain brain damage - a rate more than five times the national average, Beilenson reported.
The problem is not isolated to Baltimore, noted Ruth Ann Norton of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. As one of the oldest states in the nation, Maryland is typified by homes built long before Congress banned lead paint in 1978.
Statewide, exposure rates are about double the national average, and "hot zones" of lead poisoning have been discovered in older rural areas such as Dorchester and Wicomico counties.
"This is a problem that cuts across all races, all economic classes and geographic boundaries," Norton warned.
Norton and other speakers noted that the enforcement and abatement push will soon receive a major boost when a $50 million aid package authorized last year by Gov. Parris N. Glendening becomes available to city, county and state agencies.
The money constitutes the largest part of an infusion of cash aimed at blunting an epidemic whose tentacles often reach out in surprising ways to permanently damage the state's children.
In addition, Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland has secured a $400,000 federal grant for studies at Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger Institute on the dangers of lead paint dust produced by renovations and demolitions.
The city's campaign in recent years to raze its decrepit slums and clear land for new development in older downtown business corridors represents one of the most aggressive inner-city demolition programs in the nation. And with the recent economic boom, officials say, renovations of older homes in Canton, Butcher's Hill and other areas have been at their highest levels in years. Residents told officials in Annapolis yesterday that shattered lead paint, plaster debris and billows of dust from construction and demolition sites have become all too familiar sights on the streets of the city's congested rowhouse wards.
"There is a big issue right now with demolitions washing lead into the environment and into the soils," acknowledged Beilenson. "It just goes to show how big a challenge we're facing."