Imani Studivant was only a toddler when the poison entered her body, borne by chips and dust containing traces of lead paint.
Now, at age 7, the West Baltimore girl has a slight speech impediment and could suffer effects that would be with her for the rest of her life.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has pointed to Imani as one example of the thousands of children already poisoned and the thousands more who are damaged every year.
Today, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume is expected to announce a plan to sue the lead paint industry as well as cities and states that fail to abide by federal and state regulations. It is not known if Baltimore or Maryland will be included in the proposed legal action.
The NAACP's action occurs as rising concern over lead paint poisoning has sparked lawsuits against some of the country's best known paint companies, including Dutch Boy and Sherwin-Williams.
Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Baltimore-based Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, said the NAACP's concern will boost the profile of the longstanding problem of lead paint poisoning. A federal task force recently reported that there could be 135,000 additional cases of lead paint poisoning each year if nothing is done, said Norton.
"We're at a critical time to do something," she said. "We can't lose the momentum."
Baltimore and state officials recently began to crack down on landlords who rent apartments and houses that have lead paint. City officials have passed legislation requiring every child to be tested for lead paint poisoning.
With one of the nation's oldest housing stocks, Baltimore has long ranked among the worst cities in the nation for lead paint poisoning.
Thousands of units of substandard housing across the city's east and west sides have been in the hands of rental speculators for decades.
In areas such as Park Heights, Middle East and Upton, more than 1,000 children a year on average have ingested brain damaging doses of lead chips and dust, according to records that the city Health Department began to compile in the 1980s.
Norton said a 1998-1999 survey found that 31 percent of the city's children had been screened for lead poisoning. Of those, 22 percent had high lead levels, and 4 percent were listed as serious cases of lead paint poisoning.
Found in pediatric testing
Imani's poisoning came to her family's attention through routine pediatric testing, said her father, Joseph C. Studivant. The child's case was so severe that she had to be hospitalized.
Imani -- misidentified as Joseph Sturdivant by the NAACP on Sunday -- has received preschool services at Robert W. Coleman Elementary School and had home training to counteract effects of the poisoning. Studivant said his daughter is receiving speech therapy and doing "fairly well."
The family filed a civil suit against the property owners. That case was settled last month for $145,000.
"What I would say to any parent is that there is a definite need for early intervention and that they educate themselves to the issues and that they advocate," said Studivant, who is completing a four-year term as a member of the Governor's Commission for Lead Poisoning Prevention.
Edmondson Avenue property
The family's case against Dynamic Investment centered on the company's property at 3915 Edmondson Ave. The place was so riddled with cracked and peeling lead paint that a Health Department inspector issued an emergency violation notice to then-owner Chester S. Martyn in 1996, giving 30 days to fix 15 areas of the house that were potentially dangerous to children.
Imani was poisoned in a second-floor apartment that had been leased to her grandmother, who began caring for the child on weekdays shortly after she was born.
The case followed a typical pattern for lead paint lawsuits in Baltimore, lingering on the docket for three years before being settled.
Joseph B. Espo, who represented the Studivants, said the child was poisoned between March 1995 and September 1996.
"I've been doing this for a long time," Espo said. "This was certainly not the worst property. What this demonstrates better than many cases is that even small defects in properties that have lead-based paint can have terrible consequences. You don' t need a run-down, ill-maintained, ready-to-be-torn-down rowhouse to poison a child."
Dynamic has since sold the house for $35,450.
Studivant, who runs a city Youth Opportunity Community Center in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, said he often confronted an insensitive bureaucracy during his fight to win assistance for his daughter.
`Hitting against a brick wall'
"There was many a day when I felt like I was hitting against a brick wall," he said.
Marketed for its durability and relative low cost, lead was used widely in interior and exterior residential paints through the first half of the 20th century.