Staying the course against lead poisoning

Momentum: City and state enforcers must keep the pressure on owners of toxic houses.

January 02, 2002


A $50-million, three-year push from Gov. Parris N. Glendening has resulted in fewer Maryland children suffering from the life-altering impact of lead poisoning.

Another $3.5 million of the promised commitment is due this year - and, despite heavy pressure to trim state spending everywhere, this program deserves the highest priority. To falter now would seem doubly lamentable because so much progress has been made.

As part of the governor's campaign, city and state authorities have begun to prosecute landlords who fail to make their properties lead-safe. Hundreds of owners have made renovations, proving what advocates have maintained for some time: No anti-lead-poisoning program works without code enforcement.

For those improvements, credit also Mayor Martin O'Malley and his commissioner of health, Peter Beilenson. In the 13 years prior to Mr. O'Malley's election, exactly zero such cases were brought in Baltimore. This enforcement push was aided by the state Department of the Environment and its secretary, Jane T. Nishida.

These forces came together finally with the prodding of groups such as the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning and its director, Ruth Ann Norton. Aided by physicians, private anti-lead advocates and a few legislators, the coalition fought to promote stricter code enforcement, to tighten laws protecting tenants and to provide lead-safe transitional housing.

All of these successes were hard-won. The lead-poisoned or lead-threatened among us - Baltimoreans, for the most part - don't have lobbyists in Annapolis. Politicians, with some notable exceptions, responded to this public health crisis slowly. Then they began to see the results of neglect: the correlation, for example, between abysmal classroom performance and areas of the city where cases were most prevalent.

While some cases are more serious than others, medical researchers now say lead in the blood is hazardous at any level.

High levels of infestation, of course, bring a higher likelihood of damage: learning disabilities, serious behavioral problems and, in the worst cases, death. Here, too, recent testing shows significant improvement: From 1999 to 2000, the number of children with seriously high levels of lead (more than 20 micrograms per deciliter of blood) dropped from 555 to 353.

Lead paint was banned in Baltimore in 1951 and nationwide in 1978. But more than a half-million properties statewide were built before the prohibitions. Exposure to lead-paint dust from dilapidated housing can cause problems ranging from subtle deficits to mental retardation.

"The goal is to see what progress has been made with the money," said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg of Baltimore, chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on Health and Human Resources. "We want to make sure we're using the money effectively."

Extremely encouraging results are in. "Throwing money" at problems doesn't always work, but in this case the lesson seems clear:

Keep throwing.

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