Concerned parents

Sally Dworak-Fisher (right) and Claire Mullins of Federal Hill had difficulty getting authorities to respond to their concerns regarding possible lead dust from an adjacent home being rehabbed. (Joe Soriero, Baltimore Sun / June 28, 2011)

The dust was thick enough that Sally Dworak-Fisher could trace letters in it with her finger.

She feared that particles from rehab work next door were drifting into her Federal Hill home and coating many surfaces — even under the bathroom sink.

But when she and other neighbors of the property contacted federal, state and local authorities about concerns that dust at the Henrietta Street house might contain toxic lead, everyone said some other agency was responsible.

The residents' complaints, made earlier this month, demonstrate a breakdown at every level of government in the enforcement of laws and regulations meant to protect the public from the hazards of lead-based paint.

"It's one of those issues that seems to fall in that gap of enforcement levels in city, state and federal government," said City Councilman William H. Cole IV, who also contacted many agencies on the neighbors' behalf. "Nobody seemed to be able to identify who that right person was."

Baltimore Housing, which handles code enforcement, directed a resident's call to the city health department. The Maryland Department of the Environment said the state's lead paint laws didn't apply, because the agency only inspects lead hazards in rental properties. And a staffer for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warned Dworak-Fisher that hers would be one of many complaints handled by an office in Philadelphia.

The situation frustrated Dworak-Fisher and the other adjoining neighbor, Claire Mullins — both mothers of young children whose developing nervous systems are susceptible to long-term damage from even minute amounts of lead. Dworak-Fisher said she tried to clean up the dust in her home, but a lead test based on a swipe beneath her bathroom sink revealed levels three times higher than acceptable.

"It really makes me angry and upset for all the people who don't have the time and resources to spend all day making calls and trying to get some response," Dworak-Fisher said.

Mullins said her main concern is the health of her 3- and 8-year-old daughters. "I can't believe this is not a priority the city and state are serious about."

Lead poisoning has long been a health scourge in Baltimore's low-income neighborhoods, where older, often substandard rental housing is riddled with lead-based paint.

While great strides have been made in recent years in reducing the number of children poisoned, risks remain — even in middle-class and affluent neighborhoods. (Baltimore banned the use of lead paint in homes in 1950.)

Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, said the mothers' complaints illustrate a gap in the laws protecting children in cases of demolition or home rehabilitation, which occur frequently in the city.

Tearing out windows, walls and other surfaces can generate dust from lead-based paint. And in a city like Baltimore, with rowhomes and houses close together, failure to contain the dust can spread lead to neighboring properties.

It took days — and the intervention of Cole's office, as well as inquiries from The Baltimore Sun — before any government agency responded to the residents, and visited the neighborhood.

Dworak-Fisher said she originally contacted the Maryland Department of the Environment, where a worker promised to send an inspector right away — until the agency realized it only has jurisdiction over rental property.

Dworak-Fisher, who also has a 3-year-old daughter, then contacted the EPA, where a staffer agreed to fax her forms to file a written complaint under the federal agency's renovation, repair and painting rule.

As of April 2010, an EPA rule requires renovation firms working on houses constructed before 1978 to be certified in lead-safe work practices, such as sealing off doorways and windows with plastic. More than 2,800 Maryland contractors have the qualifications, including Integrated Construction Maintenance Inc., the company listed on the city demolition permit.

"We're doing everything under the letter of the law," said Scott Hollander, who is listed as the agent for the owner, Pilatus Opportunity Fund I LLC.

He said the adjacent homeowners never contacted them, even though contact information was listed on the permit posted in the window. "We have heard from everyone except them," he said, declining to comment further.