Getting the lead out

February 18, 2005

GOV. ROBERT L. Ehrlich Jr.'s lead-poisoning initiative is, on balance, a step forward for at-risk children, including city children. So why are Baltimore legislators against it? Because Mr. Ehrlich has wiped out the state's $375,000 appropriation for city lead-paint inspectors. In other words, the delegates are warning that if the governor is going to do something that might harm children, they'll do something to harm children, too.

This would be amusing if it weren't such a serious matter. While incidents of lead poisoning have dropped by 90 percent or more over the past decade, there's plenty of room for improvement. More than 1,180 city children under age 6 were diagnosed with elevated lead levels in their blood in 2003. Despite recent efforts, thousands of city houses and apartments still aren't safe.

So why cut the city's inspection budget? State officials say state inspectors can accomplish more within the city than their Baltimore counterparts - and the statistics back them up. That's largely because they enforce a state law that can react to a single tenant complaint (instead of a documented poisoning) and force landlords to clean up all their rental units (instead of just one per complaint). Maryland Department of the Environment Secretary Kendl P. Philbrick says it's simply a matter of efficiency. Even the legislature's budget analysts have recommended cutting the city's enforcement funding in the past.

But that's short-sighted. It's great that state inspectors are efficient, but they can't do everything. For instance, city inspectors routinely require window replacement - a key way to reduce lead contamination - and their state counterparts don't. Clearly, the better solution would be for MDE and the city to team up, not to wipe out the city's enforcement budget. Why not, for instance, change existing laws to make it possible for joint enforcement efforts by state and city inspectors? Is it unreasonable to expect a more cooperative approach?

Last December, Mr. Ehrlich said he had $30 million set aside to finance medical malpractice reform. The money wasn't needed - the legislature passed the HMO tax instead. So how about using just 1 percent of that surplus to restore the inspectors?

The governor could give the mayor and City Council a mandate to come up with better enforcement results next year. And Secretary Philbrick and his counterparts in the city could devise ways to make that happen, perhaps with beefed-up laws and an agreement to coordinate city and state inspection efforts. Now that would go a long way to finally wiping out childhood lead poisoning.

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