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Sun Investigates

Lead paint: Despite progress, hundreds of Maryland children still poisoned

Lawyer: "If rich white kids were getting poisoned, there would be a law...that says 'No lead in houses.'"

There's a huge hole in the kitchen ceiling of the rowhouse Olivia Griffin rents in West Baltimore. Rain leaks in through the roof, the lights in a bedroom don't work, and standing water fills one end of the basement.

The 27-year-old mother's biggest worry, though, is the flaking, peeling paint inside and out — and the dangerously high level of lead in the blood of her 1-year-old daughter, Lyric. Two of her other three children have lower but still potentially harmful levels in their blood as well.

Lead poisoning, once epidemic among Baltimore's poor, is much less common than it used to be, with the number of new city cases dropping by 86 percent since 2002. But it is still claiming young victims years after authorities vowed to eradicate it. At least 4,900 Maryland children have been poisoned by lead in the past decade, their brains exposed to a contaminant that causes lasting learning and behavioral problems. There are likely more victims, because not all children are tested.

The poisoning continues in part because the system Maryland has set up to protect youngsters from deteriorating lead-based paint is inadequately enforced and relies on data riddled with errors, a Baltimore Sun investigation has found.

Last year, the system failed more than 260 children who were poisoned in Maryland — at least one in nearly every county, and 129 of them in Baltimore. It failed Olivia Griffin's children, more than once.

State and city inspectors visited Griffin's home after a test last year found her now 3-year-old son, Nazir, had an elevated lead level. The Maryland Department of the Environment and the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development both directed her landlord to fix crumbling paint in the home — but then, nothing was done.

The state agency closed its case after records were erroneously changed to say the problem had been fixed, and no one checked. In the city, no one followed up on the housing department citation insisting that the peeling paint be dealt with. Griffin says she kept pressing her landlord to no avail.

The hazardous paint was allowed to remain, and by this fall, Griffin had more than Nazir to worry about. Tests showed Lyric now had lead poisoning, and her twin brother, Zion, also had lead in his blood.

When she learned the severity of Lyric's poisoning, Griffin said, "I just cried, because I thought something was going to be wrong with my baby."

Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg says government agencies need to do more to make sure Maryland's lead paint law is enforced and that children are protected from poisoning.

"This is a clearly preventable disease," said Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who pushed to get the law passed. "We need to act before kids get sick."

Freddie Gray's death in police custody in April offered a painful reminder of the legacy of Baltimore's long history of lead-poisoned children. The city banned the use of lead paint in 1950, nearly three decades before the federal government outlawed its use in homes nationwide. But the paint on the walls and woodwork of older homes remained, and it has poisoned generations of youngsters living in dilapidated housing.

As children in the early 1990s, records show, Gray and his sisters picked up harmful levels of lead as their family moved from one lead-laden rental home to another. The family received a monetary settlement from one of their landlords after claiming in a lawsuit the youngsters had suffered learning, behavioral and medical problems from ingesting lead paint dust.

Experts suggest Gray's mental impairment by lead poisoning might have played a role in his struggles in school and his involvement in the drug trade. The officers who chased him from a West Baltimore street corner before his arrest were under orders to crack down on suspected drug dealers.

In the past 21 years, Maryland has passed and strengthened the law requiring landlords to cover or remove lead-based paint that's peeling, chipping or flaking. An elaborate system is supposed to keep track of all rental homes old enough to have lead paint, and the homes are required to pass an inspection. State and city agencies regularly share information and cooperate in enforcement, officials say. Statewide, the effort has led to a 98 percent drop in reported new poisonings.

"We are proud of the work that we have done in the city," said Dr. Leana Wen, Baltimore's health commissioner. Yet while the drop in cases is "something to celebrate," she said, "that's not nearly enough. If a child has any level of lead in their blood, that is not acceptable."

Further progress is hindered, advocates say, because the state lead paint law is largely self-enforced. The state requires landlords to have their properties inspected for lead paint hazards, but rarely checks. A state or city worker typically visits a rental unit only after a routine medical test finds a child has been poisoned, or if someone complains. And even then, cases fall through the cracks.

Thomas Tompsett, a lobbyist for owners and managers of Maryland's larger apartment buildings and complexes, insists that most landlords do the right thing, investing heavily to treat lead-based paint in their properties. He suggested that tenant children could be picking up lead in other places — from urban soil, from relatives' or caregivers' homes, or from imported toys and candies contaminated with lead.

"We landlords get a bad rap, but we're not all bad people," Tompsett said.

Some children do pick up harmful levels of lead elsewhere, health officials say, but in Baltimore and the rest of the state, lead-based paint in homes remains the primary source of exposure. And nearly two-thirds of the children poisoned in the city are living in the same pre-1950 rental homes that have been the focus of state enforcement for decades.

Even a minute dose of lead can subtly damage a young child's developing brain and nervous system, studies show, making it harder for the child to learn to read, think and retain information. Lead poisoning can also make it harder for a youngster to sit still, and make the child more prone to act out. Studies have found poisoned children are more likely to struggle in school and to get in trouble, both as juveniles and adults.

More than a decade ago, Maryland publicly pledged to end childhood lead poisoning by 2010. Some see a lack of commitment, or worse, in the failure to do so.

"If rich white kids were getting poisoned, there would be a law on the books that says 'No lead in houses,'" said lawyer Brian Brown, who files lawsuits on behalf of lead-poisoned children. "There's a lack of proactive enforcement."

Del. Jill P. Carter of Baltimore agrees.

"What has been done is wholly inadequate," she said.

Children 'aren't being protected'

Here's how Maryland's law is supposed to protect children like Olivia Griffin's:

People looking for lead-safe housing to rent can check an online database maintained by the Maryland Department of the Environment. The properties listed are supposed to be inspected before tenants move in to ensure they're free of peeling, flaking paint and of lead dust. The owners of rentals built before 1978, when lead paint was banned nationally, are required to hire a private inspector to check the home and make sure it is safe. And if paint later starts to come off walls or woodwork, landlords must fix it within 30 days of being notified — or offer the tenants someplace safe to stay until repairs can be made.

There are gaps in that system. Rental properties must be registered every year, but some owners have never registered. And even if a place is registered with the state, that doesn't guarantee it passed inspection.

With fewer than a dozen inspectors to cover as many as 400,000 rental units statewide, MDE officials say they don't have the staff to check.

"We respond to complaints," said Jay Apperson, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment. "We do not have the resources to do sweeps."

State auditors have repeatedly criticized the agency's oversight of the rental registry, finding that, over the years, thousands of properties have dropped off the list without explanation. The homes may have been sold, boarded up or demolished — all legitimate reasons to stop paying the $30 annual registration fee. But auditors found that the MDE failed to check on why property registrations weren't renewed. Unregistered properties are still being rented.

In the 2600 block of Miles Ave. in the city's Remington neighborhood, for example, 16 rental properties checked by The Sun did not have an up-to-date registration on file with the state. And two were never registered, according to state records. Only three properties of 21 in the block identified by the local community association as rental homes had all their paperwork in order, state officials confirmed.

"The children living in these homes, they obviously aren't being protected," said Bill Cunningham, treasurer of the Greater Remington Improvement Association. The group brought its concerns about the block to The Sun, saying it was worried because young children live there.

"If we were able to show this in one block, then what does the rest of the city look like?" Cunningham asked.

In response to the critical audits, the Department of the Environment over the summer mailed 10,500 violation notices to owners of properties that hadn't renewed their registration in the past three years. The penalty for failing to register is $90.

In Griffin's case, the rowhouse on Lauretta Avenue was registered when Olivia Griffin moved in with her aunt six years ago. But state officials say there is no record it ever passed a lead paint inspection.

Under the law, the property owner is required to remove any lead hazards before a new tenant moves in and fix any that arise over time.

Moreover, landlords are required to give tenants a certificate from the inspector attesting the unit is lead-safe. They're also supposed to give tenants brochures explaining what they can do to keep their children safe from lead poisoning, including reporting any paint that starts to chip.

"All it takes is a little bit of lead dust on their pinkie day in and day out," said Barbara Moore, a nurse practitioner who runs the lead-poisoning clinic at Mount Washington Pediatric Hospital. Ingesting an amount comparable to five granules of sugar is enough to poison a child, she said.

Griffin said her landlord never told her there was lead paint in the house, which was built in 1920.

Horacio A. Tablada, deputy state environment secretary, said tenants share responsibility for ensuring that their children don't become poisoned. Residents are encouraged to report recalcitrant landlords, he said, and state inspectors follow up on such cases. But Tablada acknowledged that tenants may be reluctant to contact authorities, in some cases fearing they might be evicted.

At Griffin's home, an alarm of sorts was sounded last year when a test found that Nazir, then 2, had 9 micrograms per deciliter of lead in his blood. The reading was just below Maryland's legal threshold for lead poisoning: 10 micrograms per deciliter.

Since 2012, citing research showing there's no safe level of lead exposure, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged health care providers and authorities to follow up on any young child with a level as low as 5 micrograms. But Maryland, unlike some states, has not revised its standard, citing limited resources to follow up on the additional cases. In Baltimore alone, for instance, there were 708 children last year found to have lead levels in the range the CDC recommends checking — more than five times the number of children officially considered poisoned in the city that year.

The city Health Department does try to visit parents of any child found to have a blood lead level of 5 to 9 micrograms. They agency didn't in Nazir's case, city officials say, but Tablada says the city did notify the state.

As a result, a state inspector looked into the Lauretta Avenue home in November 2014, records show. Finding no evidence the place had ever passed inspection, the MDE issued a notice of noncompliance to the landlord. Soon afterward, Tablada said the landlord called the MDE to report that she planned to evict the tenants and board up the house because she could not afford to make repairs.

Tablada said his staff then forwarded the case to the department's lawyers. But before any legal action could be taken, he said, his agency was notified the property had indeed passed a lead paint inspection. So the case was closed.

Only later did MDE staff discover that the property had actually failed the inspection, Tablada said. Somehow the wrong information had been entered in a computer database. Officials are still trying to determine how that happened, he said.

"This case should have stayed open," Tablada said.

Meanwhile, worried by peeling paint that was getting worse, Griffin's aunt called the city's 311 line to complain in April. A city housing inspector went out a few days later, confirmed the problem and cited the owner for violating the housing code. Owners can be fined and taken to court if they don't fix such violations within 30 days.

City housing records show the paint violation notice issued for the Lauretta Avenue home remains "open," said Michael Braverman, a deputy city housing commissioner. That means the landlord has not reported making repairs, and the city has taken no action.

The owner of Griffin's home until April, Joelle Snowden of Manassas, Va., noted in a phone interview that she sold the Lauretta Avenue property this year. She said she had the property inspected for flaking paint once about a decade ago, and believed it was in compliance with the lead law while she owned it.

Snowden said it was hard to keep up with expensive repairs at the aging house, especially when she was dealing with serious health issues in her family. Owning the house, she said, "turned out to be more of a nightmare than I anticipated. It became impossible to be a responsible landlord."

In selling the property, Snowden said she alerted the buyer that it needed repairs, including to bad wiring and "chipping paint."

Martha Sekum of Bowie, who is listed in state records as the new owner of the house, said in an interview she was not told of lead paint problems before buying the home from Snowden through an intermediary. She cited the lead hazard in suing Snowden in Baltimore District Court over the deal.

"I just want to get out of this mess," Sekum said.

Tablada said the MDE's efforts to stay on top of cases like Griffin's are hampered by disjointed record-keeping. Property registrations, inspections and enforcement actions are all logged in different databases that cannot easily be cross-checked. Upgrading and integrating those disparate information systems would cost nearly $1 million, he said, adding that the agency hopes to do that.

To make greater progress toward eradicating lead poisoning in Maryland, Tablada said the state needs a better database and better coordination with other agencies to catch problem properties before a child is harmed, not after. Changing the system so the state is made aware of tenant complaints about paint also would help, he said.

Others say more should be done. Ruth Ann Norton, a longtime advocate on lead-poisoning issues, credited state and city agencies with doing a better job of following up on lead cases. But she believes more money is needed to help landlords and homeowners fix expensive problems. And the state ought to license all landlords and require annual inspections, she said.

She noted, for instance, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has a policy of making annual walk-throughs of all homes where it provides a federal rental subsidy. "We know what to do, how to fix it, and we need the money to do it," Norton said.

Starting next year, the state says, it will urge medical providers to perform blood tests on all 1- and 2-year-olds in Maryland to check for lead. Only about 20 percent of children get tested now. The Department of the Environment also is working to get tens of thousands of additional rental units to comply with the law. As of this year, the law applies to units built as recently as 1978; the cutoff previously was 1950.

"We are making every effort," said MDE's Tablada. "This is a high priority for us here, and for me."

With $6 million in city, state and federal funds, the city housing department plans to help pay for repairs to paint and other problems in 200 owner-occupied homes over the next three years.

In West Baltimore, Olivia Griffin says she's finishing a job training program. With help from the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, a nonprofit Norton directs, Griffin has qualified for a federal housing voucher that will help her find a new place to live. She says Lyric, now 14 months, so far appears to be developing normally despite the lead poisoning. But she's concerned about Nazir. He acts out a lot and was slow learning to talk, she said, so she took him to a speech therapist.

"He's doing OK now," Griffin said, though his speech still gets garbled at times. "You just have to be around him for a while so you can understand."

Since 1993, shortly after Gray and his sisters first became poisoned, 37,500 children in the city have ingested enough lead to be considered poisoned under Maryland law, according to state data.

"When do we want to stop dumbing down our kids?" asked Norton. "I don't know what Freddie Gray did between the ages of 3 and 25," she added, but "if he had been able to read well, had gone to school ... [if] his family wasn't just fleeing from one house to another, the likelihood of him not being on that corner would have been a whole lot better. We know that.

"There's a bill to pay because we neglect," she concluded.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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Intractable problems

As part of its continuing coverage of Freddie Gray's death, The Baltimore Sun is examining some of the intractable problems that affected his life — and still plague thousands of city residents. This series of occasional articles will focus on lead poisoning, the drug trade and other topics.

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