Seeking approach to help in coping with demolition

URBAN CHRONICLE

Advice: Dr. Mark Farfel has created a book and brochure for city residents on what they can do to minimize health problems when a nearby building is being razed.

October 31, 2002|By Eric Siegel | Eric Siegel,SUN STAFF

IN MANY of Baltimore's older and poorer communities, demolition of decrepit buildings is a fact of life.

Unfortunately, notifying nearby residents that the buildings are coming down - and giving them advice about what they should do when the wrecking ball hits - is not.

Dr. Mark Farfel figures there is not much he can do about the former reality, nor does he necessarily want to. But the associate professor at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health has been working hard to change the latter.

Armed with a $600,000 grant from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and working with city agencies and community groups, Farfel has created a booklet and brochure for residents faced with nearby demolition, and produced a draft of a set of procedures to be followed by those doing and overseeing the demolition.

"We need a new approach to urban demolition that minimizes any potential health impact," Farfel said in a recent interview.

Farfel made news more than a year ago when Maryland's highest court criticized a study he did in the early 1990s.

In ordering trials for two lawsuits that had alleged that children were knowingly exposed to unsafe levels of lead-paint dust during a Farfel study, the Court of Appeals compared that study to the U.S. Public Health Service's Tuskegee experiment of untreated syphilis. Farfel disputed the court's assertions and defended the study.

A Kennedy Krieger spokeswoman deflected further questions about the court's decision, saying the lawsuits were headed for trial and contending that it was unfair to mention the court decision in the context of the demolition project.

"The two [projects] are unrelated," spokeswoman Julie Lincoln said.

Farfel's demolition project was sparked by yet another lead study he conducted that documented the increase in lead dust levels in the air created by the demolition of older houses. It was in presenting the results of that study to residents and city officials that concerns were raised about how demolition was being done.

The timing of Farfel's education effort regarding demolition couldn't be more propitious. The city is moving ahead with a plan to take control of 5,000 abandoned properties citywide, many of which will have to be torn down. It is also planning to create a biotech park in East Baltimore by razing hundreds of properties in a residential area within walking distance of Farfel's office.

Peter L. Beilenson, the city's health commissioner, acknowledged that in the past the problems related to demolition were not dealt with systematically by various city agencies involved.

"There wasn't a real protocol," he said. "It makes sense to do that collaboratively."

Farfel said the presence of lead in the dust from the demolition of older buildings is a major health hazard - but not the only one.

That same dust can also trigger asthma and allergies. Water used to keep down the dust can seep into nearby basements, causing mold to grow and adding to respiratory ailments. Rat and roach habitats can be disturbed, leading them to invade nearby homes.

The project's literature provides telephone numbers to call for help and offers practical advice, such as washing window sills and wells, wet-mopping floors and vacuuming carpets daily.

As Farfel envisions the program working, community educators - four have been trained using the grant money - would deliver the material door to door in the surrounding area well before demolition and address individual concerns. These workers, who would have to be hired by the contractor, also would help city health and housing inspectors monitor the demolition.

"Most of the time, residents don't the get word in advance," Farfel said. "They go out, and the house across the street is knocked down, and their windows are open, and their laundry's out."

Farfel said he wants rat control "broadened to where the city would have a dedicated team to do rat control around demolition sites," a proposal that is "on the table," he said.

In some cases, Farfel said, the problem in protecting public health and safety boils down not so much to new procedures as to better accountability on the part of contractors and city agencies. That would help ensure that demolition sites were adequately watered down to reduce dust, that damaged sidewalks were repaired and that debris was quickly removed.

Farfel said his focus on how to prepare and protect nearby residents doesn't mean he is unaware of broader social issues that often go along with demolition, such as relocation.

He also says his focus doesn't mean he is pro-development or anti-development.

"We don't have a position whether demolition should be done," he said. "It's an element of urban development. We receive benefits from demolition, like open space and new housing. But we also want to minimize problems that have been associated with demolition."

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