Rally pressures leaders to ensure clean, healthy living conditions

Children's asthma linked to pests, rodents and mold

January 13, 2004|By Reginald Fields | Reginald Fields,SUN STAFF

In the abandoned homes on either side of Ethel Armstead's East Baltimore rowhouse, rats as big as cats and mice as small as babies' shoes are nesting and scurrying through walls in and out of her home.

Armstead has lived in this house in the Oliver community for five years, and in that time the asthma afflicting each of the four grandchildren she is raising has gotten worse.

This is no coincidence, researchers and doctors say. A direct connection has been found between blighted living conditions, which often are havens for pests and rodents, and ailments such as asthma.

Today at Zion Baptist Church in Oliver, a national citizens organization will hold a rally using Armstead's neighborhood as a national example of why governments need to commit more money to erasing blight.

"Oliver, unfortunately, has become the poster child for blight for the entire East Coast," said Arnie Graf, an organizer for BUILD, Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development. "This is a problem that the federal government needs to help fix."

BUILD is affiliated with Industrial Areas Foundation-East, which in recent years has challenged officials in New York City and Philadelphia to commit to ending blight by funding demolition and new housing projects.

They have now turned their attention to Baltimore and hope to make Oliver, and places like it, a familiar topic for politicians, including the presidential candidates.

In Maryland, BUILD officials have met with U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings and U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and asked for support for Oliver, whose problems drew national attention after seven members of a family died when their home was firebombed in 2002 by a drug dealer.

BUILD is hoping to force developers of the East Baltimore biotech park project to expand its boundaries further north to include Oliver, which would guarantee that parts, if not all, of Oliver would be redeveloped.

BUILD is also pushing City Council members to place a $50 million bond issue for neighborhood redevelopment on the general election ballot.

At today's rally, BUILD officials will present information on how deplorable living conditions have become for many residents in Oliver, where 44 percent of the 2,300 properties are abandoned.

At the rally, they intend to call on the federal government to provide a 2-to-1 match for every dollar that local governments commit to redeveloping blighted neighborhoods. And they will urge the federal government to improve indoor air quality in public housing units.

To drive home their point, BUILD will introduce little-known evidence of how blight is affecting children's health.

Because of concentrated areas of blight such as Oliver, Baltimore has among the highest rates of asthma for children in the country, said Johns Hopkins University pediatrics professor Dr. Peyton Eggleston.

"In our studies, we have begun to focus on housing and environmental conditions, and there are other reasons to explain this high rate," Eggleston said. "Blighted housing and poverty contributes to components that lead to asthma."

Substances found most often in blighted homes - such as mold, peeling plaster, cockroach skin, mouse droppings and rat urine - disintegrate into allergy- and asthma-causing dust, Eggleston said.

Lucretia Coates is principal at Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School in Oliver. She has nearly 500 students, all of whom walk to school from homes in Oliver.

About 100 of the students have chronic asthma, so the school started a support group for them called the A-plus Asthma Club.

"The homes around here are magnets for all of the causes that trigger asthma," said Coates, who grew up in the Oliver community. "Nothing will help but demolition. To see a community like Oliver, which once was a beautiful place to live, come to this, it's sad."

Three of Armstead's grandchildren are in the asthma club at Harris Elementary School. The fourth is in a similar club at Lombard Middle School.

Of six adjoining rowhouses on Armstead's block of Lafayette Avenue, four are vacant and infested with rodents, she said. Armstead dusts daily and mops every other day to keep her home clean and less attractive to rodents. But her grandchildren each have to carry two different inhalers and use breathing machines at home.

Armstead has had enough. She wants to move when the weather turns warm.

"I've just decided, I've had enough, I've got to go," she said. "I've got to do it for my grandkids. They've got to either brick up all these vacant houses or tear them down."

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