Officials hail drop in city's lead poisonings

Affected kids down 24% in two years, mayor says

October 31, 2002|By Jim Haner and Erika Niedowski | Jim Haner and Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

City and state officials and children's advocates hailed yesterday what they call a significant reduction in the number of lead-poisoned children in Baltimore, crediting more aggressive enforcement, stepped-up prevention efforts and an influx of funds to repair hazardous housing.

The percentage of city children with elevated blood-lead levels has decreased 24 percent over the past two years, Mayor Martin O'Malley announced at the Westside Healthy Start clinic.

"What we are doing is clearly working," he said. "It is possible to prevent lead poisoning in our children."

O'Malley's campaign against the childhood health scourge has become one of the hallmark achievements of his administration and a national success story that the U.S. Conference of Mayors endorsed yesterday as a model of "best practices" for other cities to emulate.

"Baltimore has faced this issue head-on," said J. Thomas Cochran, executive director of the mayors group, in presenting O'Malley with a $200,000 innovation award, to be used to distribute do-it-yourself home lead-testing kits to every pregnant city woman. "You're a shining example of a city's ability to address this pressing issue."

In the decade before O'Malley took office in 1999, about 7,000 city children a year had been exposed to the neurotoxin - most commonly ingesting hazardous dust from disintegrating lead paint in older rental houses.

Yet, only a fraction of the city's children were being tested for exposure. And city and state enforcement efforts were in such disarray that not a single landlord had been prosecuted for lead violations in a decade.

"Can you believe that?" O'Malley asked an audience of clinic workers and health officials yesterday. "For an entire decade, we knew about this problem. We knew where the devastation was occurring. And not one case was filed against uncaring landlords."

A powerful toxin, lead impedes proper brain and nerve development in young children. It can cause irreparable damage to growing bodies, including hearing loss, poor coordination and stunted bone growth. And it has been linked to a broad range of behavioral problems - among them hyperactivity and increased aggression.

According to a draft report by the nonprofit Abell Foundation, the city is burdened with an estimated 32,000 substandard rental units believed to contain active paint hazards. At current funding levels, it will take decades to clean up the mess.

But Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore health commissioner, said the city has managed to achieve drastic improvements in the past few years.

"We're testing a lot more kids every year," he said. "And we're still seeing these reductions across the board. We clearly need more money, and we clearly need more capacity to make repairs on a larger scale. But we're past the days where you can find kids in our hospital clinics with high blood-lead levels."

Among major milestones:

By the end of this year, the health department expects to have tested at least 80 percent of all children between ages 1 and 2 - seven times the number who were being screened before O'Malley took office.

Within eight months, the city plans to have issued more than $5 million in repair grants to property owners - three-fourths of them homeowners - to strip lead-paint hazards from about 500 city houses.

To date, 378 landlords have been prosecuted for lead-paint violations and compelled to pay fines and abatement costs on substandard units.

The number of children with blood-lead levels high enough to require hospital intervention has declined 46 percent; lower-level exposures are down 60 percent.

State and local officials had made inroads against lead poisoning before O'Malley took office. The number of poisoned city children declined 84 percent from 1993 through last year, according to state figures noted last week by the nonprofit Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning.

"You in many ways have led the nation in combating this entirely preventable disease," David E. Jacobs, director of the Office of Lead Hazard Control of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said at a news conference outside the coalition's Baltimore offices. "We can make it go the way of polio and smallpox and cholera."

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, long a champion of anti-lead-paint measures, said yesterday that the majority of poisoned children continue to come out of rental houses that do not comply with the state's lead-hazard-control law.

Under the 1994 law, landlords who offer older houses for rent must register their properties with the state Department of the Environment and fix crumbling paint on windows, doors and walls.

About half the 70,000 rental units in Baltimore that could contain lead paint are registered with the state, the coalition estimates.

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