Lead on their hands

Our view: Loss of HUD-funded lead abatement represents an embarrassment for Baltimore, but a tragedy for children

March 01, 2011

Lead poisoning remains one of the most serious health threats facing young children in this country and especially in cities like Baltimore. Learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, speech delay and behavioral problems all increase when youngsters are exposed to lead, and the great tragedy is that it's all preventable — if residual lead paint is properly removed from homes.

So for Baltimore to lose a golden opportunity to address this longstanding problem — as it has with the recent decision by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to cut off funding for lead abatement in the city because of program mismanagement — is not only an embarrassment but a genuine calamity.

How many more children and their families will suffer because the city couldn't meet the standards for accountability and results that HUD expected? That's the real loss represented by the government's decision to declare the city ineligible for future funding.

Compounding the disaster is that it was all so avoidable. The city health department program had been on probation since 2007 because of problems related to lead abatement grants, so officials had several years to get their act together but failed to do so — or, apparently, to even seek help.

No doubt there are administrative challenges to running a program that required the city to find eligible homes to fix up. A home in foreclosure, for instance, would not do. And families would have to be provided with alternative housing while work was being done.

But as Ruth Ann Norton, director of the Baltimore-based Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, so succinctly tells us, how could anyone "walk into low-income city neighborhoods today and not find enough homeowners willing to take $15,000-$20,000 to remove lead paint?" It's hard to believe that this could not be done; indeed, the city has been doing such work for years.

How much of the blame for this should accrue to former Mayor Sheila Dixon's tenure and how much to current Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake's is not clear. At least the current mayor has a reasonable excuse — her health commissioner, Dr. Oxiris Barbot, only took office last summer. The position sat vacant during Mayor Dixon's last year in office, due in part, no doubt, to her legal entanglements that ultimately resulted in her resignation from office.

Nevertheless, Mayor Rawlings-Blake's decision to move the entire program to the city's Department of Housing and Community Development appears sound. It will represent a fresh start and means lead abatement can be linked with other neighborhood outreach programs that promote weatherization and energy efficiency in city homes.

But whether that will be enough to satisfy HUD remains to be seen. Only when a federally funded lead abatement program is up and running again in Baltimore will the situation have been truly remedied, and that could take some time.

Even in an era of ballooning budget deficits and cutbacks at the federal, state and local levels, most any taxpayer-funded program that reduces childhood exposure to lead is too good a deal for government to pass up. According to one study, every dollar spent on controlling the lead paint hazard yields more than $200 of savings in reduced health care, crime and other costs.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 2 percent of Baltimore children under age 6 who have been tested have elevated levels of lead in their blood, by far the highest percentage in the state.

How maddening that the resources needed to make needed fixes to so serious a problem as lead poisoning were so carelessly fumbled away — lost because of incompetence in the health department and City Hall's failure to properly monitor the situation and intervene.

Baltimore used to be known as a national leader in the fight against childhood lead poisoning. No more. The shame is not in the lost reputation but in the lost opportunity to spare some innocent children considerable hardship.

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