Dueling dilemma

August 16, 2004

THE PRESENCE of young children in a house with peeling lead paint can prove to be a deadly combination. In 1931, when Baltimore recorded its first cases of lead paint poisoning deaths in children, the suspect source was window sills and door jams, surfaces easily chewed or nibbled by a teething toddler. Today, lead dust is the more insidious problem in thousands of older homes that haven't been purged of lead paint. The dangers of deteriorating paint persist and a landlord's responsibility to maintain a safe environment is no less urgent.

But the liability of a landlord for injuries caused by lead paint has become the focus of a debate at City Hall over a proposal to change the city housing enforcement code. The one-sentence addition states plainly that the housing code is not intended to change a common law principle that landlords may be held liable for lead paint-related injury only if the landlord knew of a problem and had a reasonable opportunity to fix it. The bill is an attempt to counter the impact of a Maryland Court of Appeals ruling in November that advocates for lead poisoned children say will make it easier for sick kids to sue over lead paint hazards.

The high court basically put landlords on notice that their properties should be properly maintained -- period -- and that it erred in an earlier decision when it held that landlords should have notice of a problem. The court said the city housing code sought to protect children from lead paint injuries.

City Hall is in a curious position with a thorny problem on its hands. The city has been a pioneer in lead poisoning prevention efforts since it began recording the numbers of children sickened by lead paint in 1932. Health officers, in discussing a proposed city housing code in the early 1960s, recognized the impact such a law would have on protecting the public from "toxic substances" such as lead paint. Its accomplishments in this arena continue today.

But at the same time, the city, through the Housing Authority of Baltimore, is a landlord. It manages 13,000 public housing units and has pending 25 to 30 lead paint-related lawsuits. City housing lawyers argue that the Court of Appeals made a mistake in November and misinterpreted the housing code. How can property owners fix a problem they don't know exists?

But the devastating effects of lead paint have been known for 73 years and considered a serious public health problem for just as long. Landlords are required under the housing code to keep their properties safe. If that means extra inspections and work because their properties retain lead paint, then that's the responsibility they take on. Tenants should be as diligent in safeguarding their children's health. Landlords who care for and maintain their properties in a reasonable fashion shouldn't fear a jury.

When Baltimore officials were developing a city housing enforcement code, they sought to stem blight and renew neighborhoods. But their work also held out the prospect of improving lives. Protecting children against the ills of lead paint improves the lives of kids, their families and the city they call home.

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