Lead poisoning, once widespread, appears on the way to becoming a rarity among children living in old rental housing in Baltimore and the rest of Maryland. But the problem is growing among youngsters who live in owner-occupied and newer rental homes, and that is prompting state officials to look for new ways to fight the longtime health scourge.
State environmental officials reported Tuesday that the number of Maryland children found last year with harmful levels of lead in their blood declined to 531, down by 22 from the year before and less than 0.5 percent of all youngsters tested.
Baltimore, with thousands of aging homes containing lead-based paint, still accounts for the majority of poisoned children statewide. But the numbers in the city also have declined, with 314 poisoning cases in 2010, down 33 from the year before, according to figures released by the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Robert M. Summers, Maryland's secretary of the environment, said the reduction showed the "tremendous success" of state and local efforts to curb lead poisoning, which two decades ago had afflicted nearly one in three youngsters tested in the city. The number of poisoning cases statewide has declined by 98 percent since a 1994 state law required landlords of housing built before 1950 to eliminate peeling, chipping or flaking lead paint, the main source of children's exposure to the toxic metal.
But Summers and others expressed concern about the growth in poisoning among children living in owner-occupied housing and in newer rental units — neither of which is covered by the state law. Lead-based paint was outlawed for interior use nationwide in 1978.
More than 60 percent of new poisoning cases detected last year were in homes where owners are not required to take precautions against lead paint poisoning, according to MDE figures. The number in owner-occupied housing increased to 149 last year, 20 more than the year before, while there were 66 new cases in unregulated rental units, up from 37 in 2009.
"The bottom line is, we want everyone to know that lead poisoning is a problem, not just in older rental housing," Summers said.
A study group commissioned this year by the legislature is preparing recommendations on how to fight poisoning in homes not covered by Maryland's lead law, Summers said.
One option might be for the state to seek authority to enforce a year-old federal rule requiring painting and renovation contractors to take precautions against creating hazardous lead paint dust when working in all types of homes. Maryland opted not to seek the authority earlier, officials have said, because it would have required a fourfold increase in state spending to train contractors in safe lead paint practices.
For now, the rule is enforced by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which must dispatch inspectors from its Mid-Atlantic regional office in Philadelphia to investigate complaints in Maryland about alleged violations.
This year, some Federal Hill residents said they got the runaround from city, state and federal agencies when reporting concerns about lead dust being generated by a home rehabilitation project in their neighborhood. Summers acknowledged "some confusion" at the time among regulators, but said officials at all levels of government have "tightened up lines of communication."
Maryland, along with the federal government, has set a goal of eliminating childhood lead poisoning. If ingested, small quantities of lead dust can cause brain damage in infants and toddlers, and can lead to lifelong learning and behavioral difficulties.
"This is great progress, [but] the job is not done," Ruth Anne Norton, director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, said of the new figures. She called for Maryland to take over enforcement of the EPA rule and to require that homes be tested for lead dust after painting or renovation to ensure that the work was done safely.
The coalition was awarded $930,000 Tuesday from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to spend on fixing health and safety problems, including deteriorating lead paint, in Baltimore homes.
The coalition grant is the only new federal aid coming this year for dealing with the city's extensive stock of older housing with lead hazards. The city's housing department failed in its bid for another HUD grant this year, despite taking over a troubled lead abatement program from the city Health Department. The Health Department was blocked from applying for more federal funding after lagging badly in spending an earlier $3.9 million grant from HUD.
The state has furnished nearly $1.7 million to the city to make up for the federal funding cutoff, and Cheron Porter, spokeswoman for the Department of Housing and Community Development, said her agency hopes to reduce lead paint hazards in 112 houses by next summer. The city has shifted an added $500,000 in federal community development block grant funds to help with the lead abatement effort, she said.