Lead poison forums offer one stop for information

1 in 9 Baltimore children affected by problem

February 24, 2002|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

The Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning opened a series of 10 area forums yesterday, drawing nearly 300 people who learned about risk, prevention, treatment, public health services, legal rights and how to become community advocates and citizen lobbyists.

Some, like Sunnie Jeffries of Pimlico, came to the daylong session at Baltimore City Community College to have children tested for lead poisoning.

If the blood tests detect elevated lead levels, the city Health Department will do a full inspection of the home where Jeffries and her four children have lived for nine months. They will offer the family help to correct any problems. The city also has 18 lead-free residences where families can live while lead is removed from their homes.

"I know there is lead in the house now, and that it was there when I was pregnant," said Jeffries, who is particularly concerned about the results on her 6-month-old daughter. "I think she has some of the signs."

Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the nonprofit coalition, said she hoped Jeffries and others left the forum ready to do battle against lead poisoning.

"We want people to understand the risks in their community, and we want them engaged in the process so they know they have the power to do things themselves," she said. "We want people leaving here today and leading this effort."

In the United States, one in 25 children tested has lead poisoning. In Baltimore, where the law requires lead testing for children, the statistics are one in nine. Numbers are twice as high in poorer neighborhoods and three times greater in African-American communities, health officials said. The problem exists in older homes.

Lead poisoning results in decreased intelligence and learning ability and increased behavioral problems. It can cause seizures, affect language, damage kidneys and impair motor skills.

It devastates children from birth to 5 years, the years in which the brain is developing more rapidly than any other organ, and the effects are irreversible, said Dr. Charlene Sweeney, a neurologist at the Johns Hopkins University and a speaker at the forum.

"Lead kills brain cells, and it is stored in bones," Sweeney said.

The coalition is lobbying the Maryland General Assembly for more money to test homes, stricter guidelines, increased housing inspections and training for lead abatement contractors. Prevention is the most critical element in the effort, Norton said.

"It only takes three granules of lead dust to poison a child," Norton said. "You can spend all the money you want after that fact, but once a child is poisoned, you can't change the course. Then it costs everybody, wherever you live. We all pay a heavy price in special education, medical assistance, increased delinquency and crime."

Sweeney moved to Baltimore from Denver a few months ago. In her hurry, she had few qualms about renting a Baltimore County apartment on the Internet. That changed when she signed a lease that read, "the landlord has no knowledge of lead paint" on the property.

"If that is true, then who does know?" she asked, adding she plans to have the apartment tested. "Don't take a landlord's assurance that everything is OK."

Information: 410-534-6447.

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