Fewer children were poisoned by lead-based paint in 2011 than in any year since Maryland began tracking cases nearly two decades ago, prompting the state to expand its focus to newer rental properties and owner-occupied homes.
A survey released Thursday by the state Department of the Environment showed 452 children had dangerous lead levels in their blood last year, down from more than 14,500 youngsters who tested positive for the substance in 1993. In 2010, 531 children were found to have the same level of lead poisoning.
"This disease is completely preventable," said Robert M. Summers, secretary of the environmental agency. "Maryland has made significant gains to protect our children, particularly those who live in older rental housing. But we must do more. Childhood lead poisoning can occur in any housing built before 1978."
More than 109,500 children younger than six were tested statewide last year, according to the state. In Baltimore, about 19,000 children were tested and the blood of 258, or 1.4 percent, showed high lead content, down from 314 in 2009.
More than 60 percent of Maryland's new lead poisoning cases involved children who lived in rental housing built after 1949 and in owner-occupied homes, according to the 2011 Maryland Childhood Lead Registry's annual report. That's up from 54 percent in 2009.
A law passed earlier this year gave the state greater oversight on the renovation and repair of homes constructed before 1978, when lead paint was outlawed across the country. Previously, the state's oversight only extended to rental properties built before 1950, the year the paint was banned in Baltimore.
A key aspect of the new law is a provision that requires additional safety precautions and new training for contractors who work on homes at least 34 years old.
The new law also requires owners of rental properties built before 1978 to register the properties and reduce the risk of lead poisoning. The requirement takes effect in January 2015.
Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, called the 2011 survey limited because it doesn't capture the full extent of lead poisining in children
In March, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged states to track the number of children with lower concentrations of lead in their blood, Norton said. By doing so, Maryland could discover at least 4,000 more children with lead poisoning, she estimated.
"It is clear there is much work to be done to educate the public on the impact of very low level poisoning and to debunk the myths about who is getting poisoned," Norton said. "We are seeing an increasing number of kids poisoned in homeowner-occupied properties, often because of unsafe renovation practices."
Meanwhile, Congress eliminated nearly all of the $35 million in the current federal budget for funding surveillance and outreach efforts, Norton said. That includes the elimination of $600,000 for Maryland, although state officials said the cut was offset by an increase in an annual registration fee for certain properties.
Lead paint can be deadly, especially for children. It also can result in learning disabilities, lower IQs, hearing loss and violent or aggressive behavior, among other neurological problems. In Maryland, experts say, lead exposure is the most significant and widespread environmental hazard for children.
Shanta Murray of Baltimore's Belair-Edison said she spent 19 "devastating" days this summer beside her daughter's hospital bed after the 3-year-old tested positive for lead poisoning.
"Thank God it was caught in time," Murray said.
Doctors made the discovery after Murray's daughter, Samiyah, went for a physical in June before she could attend Head Start. Murray had been living with her three children, her mother and grandmother in a house where the family resided for the last 31 years.
The Baltimore City Health Department intervened and forced the landlord to relocate the family to a hotel while the home was renovated, said Beth Bingham, spokeswoman for the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. Murray and her children were given assistance to move into a new house while Murray's grandmother returned to the renovated property.
"I would encourage parents to, please, get their children tested regularly, especially if you are living in an older home," Murray said. "This could be a really deadly disease."
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