Lead-paint foes tackle additional ills

Columbia-based group taking on breathing woes of low-income children

February 09, 2003|By ROBERT J. TERRY | ROBERT J. TERRY,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A Columbia-based housing organization that has worked to reduce lead-paint poisoning in children is expanding to focus on other health problems as it marks its first decade of work.

The National Center for Healthy Housing - launched in 1992 by the Enterprise Foundation, the philanthropic organization founded by developer James Rouse - has authored groundbreaking studies of lead-paint hazards in federally subsidized and low-income housing.

The group celebrated its 10th anniversary last week as it was being named one of seven organizations sharing a total of $6.5 million in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development grants. The money will be used for new programs aimed at reducing lead-paint poisoning. The housing center's grant - $930,789 to create the nation's first lead-safe program at residential child care centers in Syracuse and Rochester, N.Y. - comes as the agency sets its sights on a new target: asthma and other respiratory problems that are rising among children living in substandard housing.

Center staffers - 15 scientists, statisticians, nurses and other experts from the housing, health and environmental fields - hope to build on the body of work they have compiled targeting lead paint. Lead-paint poisoning and the onset of respiratory ailments are triggered by many of the same factors, experts said: mold, dust and allergens, made worse by poor ventilation systems and moisture. The asthma rate in children younger than 5 has increased 160 percent since 1980, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"The sensible thing for us to do is continue to do the kind of thing we do for lead but to do it more broadly," said Nick Farr, the center's founder and a board member.

Now the center is looking at ways to target resources, secure funding and develop technical guidelines to analyze and contain asthma triggers in homes. In November, a team of experts began developing a research agenda linking housing conditions to respiratory problems. The panel hopes to publish its findings this spring.

The center and other housing organizations have proved to be an effective bridge between public health and housing officials, translating research into substantive government regulations, said John Glascock, a professor at George Washington University's Center for Real Estate and Urban Analysis.

That has always been the center's guiding principle, Executive Director Rebecca Morley said: developing a scientific and cost-effective case for methods and policies that address these kinds of health problems and help ensure a safer stock of affordable housing.

"It's going to be a pretty challenging research endeavor, but we have the partners and expertise on staff to do that," Morley added.

Establishing links

Much of that expertise was put in place during the past decade as the center worked to establish links between lead-paint poisoning and deteriorating housing conditions.

The federal government banned lead-based paint's use in residences in 1978 and began enforcing seller disclosure guidelines in 1996.

Maryland keeps a registry of lead-safe rental housing as Baltimore consistently has faced problems with children exposed to the poison. For example, about 7,000 children a year were being exposed to lead through much of the 1990s. The registry was created in 1994 by the city-based Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning as one response to those findings. A state law outlining the steps that rental property owners would need to take for compliance was passed that same year.

City officials said in October that exposure levels among children had been reduced by 24 percent during the past few years as the community focused on more testing for lead poisoning, increased removal of lead-based paint from city housing and handed out more violations to landlords who did not comply with rental laws.

Negative effects

Elevated blood-lead levels have been shown to cause a host of learning disabilities and health problems. In 1993, the National Center for Healthy Housing, then known as the National Center for Lead-Safe Housing, began a groundbreaking study that showed contaminated dust from lead-based paint was the primary cause of high blood-lead levels in children.

Housing authorities subsequently changed their removal strategies, moving away from sandblasting old paint. The focus shifted to replacing windows and door frames (wear and tear kicks up dust, and both are accessible to children), upgrading ventilation systems, smoothing floors when possible for easier cleaning, and wetting surfaces before paint removal.

Average blood-lead levels in children have declined during the past decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But HUD estimates that one in six low-income children living in older housing have lead poisoning.

Recent HUD surveys found that 38 million housing units had lead paint, down from 64 million in 1990. Of those, 25 million had dangerous lead paint levels; 1.6 million of those homes housed children in low-income families.

"Obviously, we still have a considerable way to go," said David E. Jacobs, director of HUD's Office of Healthy Homes and Lead-Hazard Control.

Increasingly, state and local governments are looking to the housing center for strategic input, Morley said. Last month, the center, which secured $1.8 million in funding in fiscal 2002, won a contract to work with housing officials in Providence, R.I., on their next steps to monitor and contain lead-paint hazards.

Meanwhile, HUD hopes last week's round of lead hazard grants will attract an additional $17 million in private donations. The department's lead contaminant budget has increased from $80 million in fiscal 2000 to a proposed $136 million in the fiscal 2004 federal budget unveiled this month.

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