Lead paint is old, but it's not history

Poison: A poignant case shows that city and state efforts to rid rental housing of lead paint are not protecting all children.

March 20, 2002|By Heather Dewar | Heather Dewar,SUN STAFF

When his family moved into their rented rowhouse in Northeast Baltimore last June, Cameron Roberts was an active 1-year-old with a ready smile and a two-word vocabulary: "Mama" and "no."

Five months later, he lay in the intensive care ward at Kennedy Krieger Institute with a potentially lethal dose of lead in his bloodstream - poisoned, his family now believes, by dust and flakes from the lead-based paint that riddled his home.

A month's worth of painful injections probably saved the toddler's life, doctors say. But the lead, which lingers in his system, left him in danger of lifelong difficulties with learning and behavior.

Now 21 months old, the dark-eyed child still speaks only two words. He rarely smiles.

"It breaks my heart," said Cameron's grandmother, Sonia Johnson of West Baltimore. "He screams, he falls out, he bangs his head against the floor. He's a sweet little child, but he just goes through changes, and you can see it's not his fault."

Tragedies like this aren't supposed to happen in Baltimore anymore.

Two years ago, city, state and federal officials launched a concerted campaign to end the childhood lead poisoning that has been a scourge on Baltimore since the 1890s. They pledged to strengthen law enforcement and help landlords clean up the toxic lead paint that contaminates older housing.

The effort has produced results. The number of Baltimore children with significant levels of lead in their blood dropped 24 percent in one year, to 2,198 in 2000. The number considered poisoned fell to 266 that same year, from 446 in 1999.

Last year, the city and state took legal action against 214 Baltimore landlords for failing to certify that basic steps have been taken to protect tenants against lead poisoning before they move in. The cases, brought under a 1994 state law, were the first prosecutions of city landlords for lead paint violations in 14 years.

But Cameron Roberts' case makes it plain "there are gaps," concedes Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city's health commissioner.

The most glaring of them: A hazardous house usually goes unnoticed by officialdom until a child gets poisoned. In Cameron's case, it appears government agencies missed two chances to spot the lead hazard in the family's rented house before blood tests showed the child was poisoned.

On the day doctors told Cameron's parents he had so much lead in his body that he could lapse into a coma and die, health inspectors tested the Roberts' house for lead paint. They found it in 45 places.

"They use the children to find the lead, not the lead to find the children," said Megan Roberts. "That's not right."

Health to death in days

Lead poisoning can silently rob children of normal development, causing behavioral problems, learning disabilities and problems with coordination. In extreme cases a child can go from apparent good health to death in days.

"There really are no giveaway symptoms," said Dr. Gary Goldstein, president of Kennedy Krieger Institute. "You can't look at a child and know its blood level ... even at a very high range."

The greatest danger comes from household paint, which contained lead until 1978, when the additive was banned nationwide. Peeling paint, renovations or even raising and lowering painted window sashes can release lead dust that children inhale or scatter paint chips that toddlers may eat.

The hazard has been publicized for decades, but Goldstein said he often meets informed, intelligent parents who don't know about it.

Megan Roberts was one such parent. "I never thought about lead poisoning," she said. "I thought that happened in the olden days."

What she didn't know

Roberts did not know she could ask her landlord for a "lead certificate" - proof that the basic lead cleanup has been done and the Maryland Department of the Environment notified of it - before the family moved into the rowhouse at 3408 Belair Road.

She didn't know state law also requires landlords to give tenants brochures that explain lead's dangers and tell how to get help for a suspected problem. Landlords who don't comply face fines of up to $260 a day, said Alvin Bowles, manager of MDE's lead poisoning prevention program.

No other Maryland law has more power to prevent lead poisoning.

"It does not necessarily equal lead-safe," said Ruth Ann Norton, director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. "But 85 to 90 percent of the [lead poisoning] cases we see are from noncompliant properties."

Megan Roberts said her landlord, Randy B. Wells of Owings Mills, never gave her the information. Nor does MDE have a record that the Belair Road house has ever had a lead cleanup.

Neither Wells nor his attorney responded to requests for an interview. His wife, Deana Wells, left a voice mail message:

"There is no comment that's going to be made on the Belair Edison lead case, because there is no case."

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