The number of Maryland children poisoned by lead fell to a new low again last year, even as state officials expanded their effort to deal with a much larger pool of youngsters harboring lower levels of the harmful substance in their blood.
A report released Tuesday by the Department of the Environment said 364 children statewide were found in 2012 to have dangerous levels of lead in their blood. Last year's tally of 452 had been the lowest since testing began in 1993.
Statewide, 110,539 children under the age of 6 were tested, an increase from the previous year, the report said. Testing declined, though, in Baltimore City, which has many older homes with lead-based paint and accounts for most of the state's lead-poisoning cases.
Officials credited much of the decline in poisoning cases to Maryland's 19-year-old law requiring owners of rental housing built before 1950, when lead-based paint was widely used, to reduce risks that young tenants could be exposed to peeling or flaking paint. Consuming even minute amounts of lead can harm a young child's development and learning ability.
Most of the more seriously poisoned children lived in homes that are not now regulated by the state, officials pointed out, either owner-occupied or rental housing built between 1950 and 1978. But lawmakers last year ordered regulators to expand their focus to newer rental homes and authorized them to ride herd on renovation practices that might generate lead-paint dust in owner-occupied homes as well.
Horacio Tablada, who oversees lead-poisoning prevention efforts at the MDE, said officials plan to begin regulating newer rental homes in 2015, as the law now requires. They are drafting regulations to address renovations and hope to have them in place next year, he added.
Another 2,375 children tested had lead levels in their blood below what's required for the state to act, but state officials said they have begun to investigate cases in Baltimore City where the children live in rental housing built before 1950. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last year recommended addressing children with lower lead levels, which research had found could still affect youngsters' learning and behavior.
Tablada said state inspectors have begun checking on youngsters with lower lead levels in Baltimore City if they live in older rental housing covered by the current law. In many cases, the checks reveal peeling and flaking paint, which are violations, he said.
Baltimore City, which has a huge stock of such older rental housing, accounts for 60 percent of the more serious lead poisoning cases and roughly half of the lower-level ones, according to the report.