Raquel Guillory, spokeswoman for Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, declined to say what her office's lawyers might have told the lab staff, noting that the health department is a client of the attorney general's office.

But Nevin said when he spoke by phone with DeBoy, the lab director said he'd been advised by an assistant attorney general that he was within his rights to destroy the records.

It's not clear how long the destruction of records had been going on. Nevin said his office received written notice about two weeks ago from the state health department that it had no record for a test result requested more than a year earlier.

Sharfstein said he doesn't know how many test results have been lost, but "at least a dozen boxes" of paper records were destroyed and "some" of the electronic copies on computers.

The state health lab records not only documented the lead levels in a child's blood, Brown said, but also listed where the child was living at the time — a key piece of information in a lawsuit seeking damages from a landlord whose rental home might have contained lead-based paint.

The doctor or clinic that ordered the test would have gotten the same test results, Brown said, but those sources are not as reliable, especially in older cases, because the offices may have since closed.

"Now if DHMH doesn't have the records, we may be out of luck," Brown said.

Sharfstein said he's optimistic the department may still be able to find or restore electronic copies of the paper records that were destroyed. In addition, blood-lead test results are reported to the Maryland Department of the Environment and, in the case of city residents, to the Baltimore City Health Department, the health secretary pointed out.

Nevin said records maintained by those agencies are not as complete as what used to be at the state health department. Still, Sharfstein said he hopes to coordinate with those agencies and others to compile documentation of all lead test results, and to ensure that it's accessible to those who need it.

"This is a regrettable incident, but maybe we can create a better system for children and their advocates," Sharfstein said.

Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Calvert contributed to this article.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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