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Maryland launches investigation into 'invalid' lead-paint certificates

"It's about time that we are ensuring that we do a better job of enforcement and oversight," advocate says

State officials are urging nearly 400 families to find out whether their children may have lead poisoning after launching an investigation of a private inspector who they say improperly certified rental properties as lead-free.

The Maryland Department of the Environment said it is partnering with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the investigation of an unnamed individual involved in 384 inspections in Maryland, including Baltimore and its suburbs. The investigation was launched after officials determined that seven properties certified as lead-free actually had lead paint or weren't properly tested, the agency said.

The remaining properties with certificates issued by the inspector are now under review.

Flaking or peeling paint is a primary source of poisoning for children, who studies have found are more likely to struggle in school and to get in trouble, both as juveniles and adults. Under state law, properties built before 1978, when lead paint was banned nationally, must be inspected and certified as safe before they can be rented.

Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the environment department, said officials didn't want to wait for the results of the investigation to inform the public.

"We wanted people to be aware this is going on so they can take steps to protect the health of their families," Apperson said.

The investigation began when state officials received a complaint concerning the validity of a lead-free certificate issued by the inspector, who performed work for American Homeowner Services LLC, based in Lusby in Southern Maryland. State officials said they determined the certificate was invalid — and then discovered six more of the inspector's certificates were also invalid.

American Homeowner Services LLC paid a $5,000 fine to settle the matter, state officials said. The company did not respond to a request for comment.

Ruth Ann Norton, a longtime advocate on lead-poisoning issues, said she was "pleased" the state was launching an investigation. She said she believes that fakery and shoddy inspections in the lead paint certification process are not rare.

"It's about time that we are ensuring that we do a better job of enforcement and oversight," Norton said. "Any level of lead causes cognitive impairment and irreversible damage. There's no room for a mistake."

State officials are now sending letters to the residents and owners of the 384 properties certified lead-free from 2010 to 2014, when the inspector's accreditation expired. The largest number is in Prince George's County, but other affected jurisdictions include Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Calvert, Charles, Howard, Montgomery and St. Mary's counties. Eighteen properties have a Baltimore address.

The letter urges parents living at the properties to have their children visit a doctor, and report to the state how many children live in the house and whether there is flaking or chipping paint visible on the property.

"At this time, it has not been determined that there are lead paint hazards in your home," the letter states. "In the future, you may be visited by a government representative or contractor seeking access to your property."

The state has also ordered new tests of all the properties to determine whether they are lead-free.

Del. Jill P. Carter, a Baltimore Democrat, called the allegations "extremely serious."

"I think it's the tip of the iceberg," Carter said of the investigation. "I definitely think there should be a broad investigation."

Carter is pursuing legislation that would make it easier to sue companies for the lead-based paint they sold until 1978. After learning of the investigation, Carter said she planned to introduce a bill that "imposes severe criminal penalties and heavy fines on purveyors of fraudulent lead certificates."

A Baltimore Sun investigation, published in December, found that the inspection system Maryland has set up to protect youngsters from deteriorating lead-based paint is inadequately enforced and relies on data riddled with errors. While lead-poisoning cases have fallen significantly, at least 4,900 Maryland children have been poisoned in the past decade.

State auditors have repeatedly criticized the environment department's oversight of its registry of rental properties, finding that, over the years, thousands of properties have dropped off the list without explanation.

The Public Justice Center, in a recent survey of renters facing eviction, showed 41 percent reported flaking or peeling paint at their homes. The survey showed many of the properties were not registered with the state and, if registered, had not passed safety inspections.

The Maryland Department of the Environment has fewer than a dozen inspectors to cover as many as 400,000 rental units statewide.

Lawrence Brown, assistant professor of community health and policy at Morgan State University, said the investigation underscores the problem of relying on contractors to conduct inspections that should be done by the state health professionals.

"Having a law on the books is no good if we're not enforcing it," he said. "You can't cut corners when it comes to lead poisoning. We should not have our children in Maryland being poisoned by lead any longer. Let's spend whatever we need to spend."

lbroadwater@baltsun.com

Twitter.com/lukebroadwater

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