NAACP seeks stricter state standard for lead-paint poisoning in housing

Legislation would lower threshold of dust hazard, require owner testing

Oaks, O'Malley trade jabs

March 15, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

NAACP President Kweisi Mfume asked the General Assembly yesterday to support a proposal setting stricter standards for landlords owning property that contain high levels of lead dust.

Mfume said the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has made eliminating lead paint poisoning a priority, and that Maryland needs to do more to protect children from the danger.

"We believe it is a basic right of all Americans to live and grow in public and privately owned housing that is free from the contamination associated with lead paint and its residue," Mfume told the House Environmental Matters Committee.

Mfume was in Annapolis to support a bill sponsored by Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, that would toughen the state standard for considering a house safe from hazardous lead dust. The proposal also would require landlords owning houses built before 1950 to perform dust tests to prove the property is safe before renting it.

Property owners - noting an 86 percent decline in childhood lead poisoning since 1994 - questioned the need for the proposal and said it would increase their costs.

"If you want to dry up the stock of affordable housing, you pass this bill," said D. Robert Enten, a lobbyist for the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore.

Lead paint has been of particular concern in Baltimore, where it is estimated as many as one in three children have elevated levels of lead in their blood. But Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, who has been a strong advocate for clearing lead from city homes, has not taken a position on Oaks' bill.

Oaks assailed O'Malley yesterday for not testifying in support of the bill, telling the committee it was time "to take the gloves off."

In a later interview, Oaks accused O'Malley - who is considering a run for governor - of caving in to pressure from property owners.

"He wants to be governor, and he cannot even come out and take a stand for poor kids in Baltimore and the Eastern Shore," said Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat. "He wants to be governor? I don't think so."

That brought an angry response from the O'Malley administration. "No informed person would question the mayor's effectiveness or commitment in fighting lead-paint poisoning," said Steve Kearney, an O'Malley spokesman.

Kearney said O'Malley is, instead, focused on keeping lawmakers from cutting $2 million from the budget that the governor proposed for the city's lead abatement program. "Actions speak louder than words," he said.

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Mfume and Oaks are trying to change Maryland's standards by amending the state's Lead Paint Poisoning Prevention law, which was passed in 1994 and took effect in 1996.

Currently, landlords seeking liability protection from the state must hire inspectors to visually inspect their property for lead dust before each new tenant moves in. The bill would do away with visual inspections and require them to measure dust levels, which is now optional.

The proposal also would lower Maryland's standard for acceptable dust levels from 200 micrograms per square foot to 40 micrograms per square foot.

Another section of the bill would change the requirements dealing with compensation for renters whose children are poisoned by lead. Those tenants can receive up to $9,500 to move into another rental property, but the bill would permit them to use that money as down payment on a house.

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