The Baltimore study tested three levels of repairs on 107 houses to see which methods of containing or removing lead paint would keep the toxic substance out of children's bodies. Homes were subject to fix-ups costing either $1,650, $3,000 or $7,000 — substantially less than a full-scale abatement of lead paint, which could cost upward of $20,000 at the time.
Levels of lead dust were monitored in those homes and in two other groups of homes — some that had previously had lead-paint hazards fully abated, and some that were built after 1979 and contained no lead paint.
According to a report filed with the EPA in 1996, the study regularly tested more than 100 children in those homes to determine whether the varying repairs had any impact on lead levels in their blood.
In each household, researchers screened participants to get very young children who were healthy and wouldn't move from the study housing.
Youngsters 6 months to 5 years old are particularly vulnerable to lead exposure and its effects on developing brains and nervous systems. Infants and toddlers pick up lead dust from crawling and sitting on floors, and ingest it by putting thumbs and hands in their mouths. Tiny amounts of lead dust can cause drops in IQ and other consequences, research has shown.
Smith moved her family into a rowhouse that she describes as "not particularly big or nice." She recalls a worn, painted wood floor and bug infestations. It had been given a $7,000 abatement.
A two-page consent form Smith signed said lead-based paint in her home "was removed or encapsulated." The only mention of risk came under the heading of "benefits," where the form noted that families would be contacted with test results "and steps that you could take to reduce any risks of exposure." It also offered $15 and free transportation every time blood was sampled.
Harris' lawsuit alleges that researchers knew that children were accumulating lead in their blood or maintained high levels of lead, but because they wanted two years' worth of data, did not recommend moving the children from the homes to avoid further exposure.
According to the lawsuit, Harris had a low but measurable level of lead in his blood when tested nearly a year after he was born in July 1993. By the time he was 21/2, his lead level had increased fourfold to more than 20 micrograms per deciliter, the suit says.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1991 had declared 10 micrograms per deciliter to be the lead poisoning threshold, at which children begin to experience lasting injuries to their brains and nervous systems. Since then, the agency has found that no level of exposure to lead is safe.
"It was still my assumption everything was OK," said Smith, 44, a regional cafeteria manager in the Baltimore public schools. "I didn't notice learning problems until the first grade."
By then, Smith had gotten a job and moved her family in with her mother to save money and get help caring for the children. She said her son struggled through elementary and middle school, failed the 10th grade and left school without completing the 11th grade.
"He was very disruptive," she said. "He couldn't stay in his seat. There was frustration he couldn't do the work."
After he dropped out, Harris began to get into trouble — "minor stuff," Smith called it, including marijuana possession. She tried to encourage him to go back to school, but he got into more serious trouble and was convicted in September of robbery and assault. He is serving an 18-month term at the Eastern Correctional Institute in Somerset County.
As her son's legal problems mounted, Smith got a letter from the Yost legal group suggesting that she call because she'd once lived in a lead-contaminated home during a study. As Smith looked at the Rutland Avenue address, "it clicked," she said. The lawsuit was filed in 2012 and a trial could begin as early as this fall.
"Cecil deserves peace of mind," Smith said. "Justice needs to be served."
'A terrible compromise'
In response to earlier lawsuits, Kennedy Krieger officials have said that the majority of youngsters in the study saw lead levels in their blood go down.
A 1997 report to the EPA says that "all or most" of the dust samples taken in study homes a year after repairs found lead levels at or below what they'd been before any work was done. The report notes that lead levels were not reduced as much in the homes that got the least costly repairs and that the gap in lead dust levels grew over time.
David Jacobs is a staunch defender of the study and its researchers. He was the director of lead hazard control for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at the time and worked with other federal agencies to fund and review the Baltimore study and others on the issue.