If it moves like a snake

August 04, 2004

IT'S A ONE-LINE addition to Baltimore's building code. But the 56 words at the heart of City Council Bill 04-1276 would undermine a decade of work to protect kids from the damaging effects of lead paint. That's city Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson's first read on the proposed legislation. And it's reason enough to kill it.

The measure, titled "Building, Fire and Related Codes - Landlord's Tort Liability," was introduced this year at the request of the city housing commissioner. The word lead doesn't appear in the bill. But children's health advocates say the bill is aimed at sparing landlords costly litigation over damage caused by toxic lead paint.

The city ordinance is suspiciously similar to a bill introduced in the state legislature this spring. That bill died in committee once it was exposed as a "snake." That's the old "wolf in sheep's clothing" trick. The state bill also never mentioned the word lead. But its attempt to overturn a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling in a lead-paint case was clear enough.

The court found that landlords can be held liable under Baltimore's housing code for damages even if a tenant didn't complain about peeling, chipping or flaking lead paint. It relied on the fact that since 1964, the city code has forbidden chipping or peeling paint in a house.

Most often, children in urban centers living in decades-old housing are exposed to lead when they eat paint chips or inhale lead dust. In Baltimore, this is an insidious problem because so much of the housing stock was built before 1950, when lead paint was in use. Much of the rental property in areas of the city consists of older homes, many in disrepair, that have never been purged of lead paint. And therein lies the problem.

Exposure to lead can cause significant neurological problems in children. Passage of the Maryland Lead Risk Reduction in Housing law in 1994 offered landlords liability protection if they inspected their homes for lead and properly maintained them. Since then, the state has made great strides in reducing the number of lead-exposed children.

Property owners say they shouldn't be held liable for damage in a house that they haven't been told about, and they should have time to fix it, and that thinking is reflected in the City Council bill. While it sounds reasonable, the potential problems resulting from exposure to lead paint are such that both the federal and state governments long ago outlawed its use. If properties haven't been stripped of lead paint, property owners have a responsibility to maintain a home so the paint doesn't become a problem. It's that simple. Advocates fear passage of the City Council bill would give landlords no incentive to provide that preventive maintenance.

Once a child is exposed to lead, the biological damage can't be reversed. Prevention is key. In 2002, 1,558 children in Baltimore had elevated blood levels that put them at risk for neurological problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and 183 were considered lead-poisoned - with consequences that span a lifetime.

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