Ben Jealous, the Democratic nominee for governor, offered a plan Thursday to fight lead poisoning in Maryland, saying Gov. Larry Hogan hasn’t done enough to alleviate a problem that has afflicted Baltimore and other parts of Maryland for generations.
The governor’s office quickly pushed back, accusing Jealous of following Hogan’s lead and failing to do his homework.
Holding a news conference in Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, Jealous proposed giving the Maryland Department of the Environment $5 million in extra funding to hire additional inspectors to identify lead paint hazards.
“Too many children across our state are still unnecessarily poisoned by lead exposure, causing them a lifetime of suffering,” Jealous said. “As a civil rights leader and businessman, I know the best way to protect our young people is to invest in prevention on the front end, before our children are already poisoned.”
The former NAACP president said he would introduce a $1,500-per-unit tax credit to help property owners abate lead contamination. Jealous said he also would tighten the state’s standard for lead exposure from 10 micrograms per tenth of a liter of blood to 5 micrograms — the standard adopted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2012. Jealous said that by having a standard twice as high as the federal government, Maryland “effectively hid” 2,000 cases of children with lead poisoning.
The Democrat said his tax proposal is modeled on a Massachusetts law that provides a $1,500 credit to owners of residential properties who take steps to eliminate lead from paint and other sources. It would be available to owners of both homes and apartment buildings.
Jealous said Maryland needs to address lead problems both in the home and at schools where drinking water is tainted by the toxic metal, which causes long-term brain damage affecting cognitive skills and behavior.
“The dangers to children are so high. It’s neither wise nor acceptable,” he said. “These are all our kids and we have to act as if they are our kids.”
Jealous did not point to any specific areas in which the Republican governor had failed to address the problem but offered general criticism.
“While I’m not saying Hogan has done nothing, it’s clear we could do more,” he said.
But Hogan spokeswoman Amelia Chasse said the governor threw his support behind legislation that would have lowered the threshold for lead exposure to 5 micrograms. She provided a letter from two members of Hogan’s Cabinet endorsing a bill sponsored by Del. Robbyn Lewis, a Baltimore Democrat, that would have lowered the limit.
"It’s great to see Ben Jealous follow the governor's lead in pushing for the adoption of the CDC’s standards,” Chasse said. “Unfortunately, the General Assembly has failed to pass legislation supported by the Hogan administration to make this important change. Under Governor Hogan, Maryland is a national leader in preventing lead poisoning, requiring all children to be tested. Doing a little homework before making ill-informed and unsubstantiated attacks is usually a good idea."
Hogan’s campaign pointed to 2016 figures from the Maryland Department of the Environment showing that the percentage of children who tested positive for lead exposure had dropped to 0.3 percent — the lowest level since testing began in Maryland. A campaign spokesman, Scott Sloofman, pointed to several administration initiatives on lead, including a 2015 requirement that all 1- and 2-year-olds be offered testing for exposure.
Del. Sandy Rosenberg, a leader in the General Assembly on lead poisoning issues for decades, said that while Hogan hasn’t been a negative force on lead exposure issues, he hasn’t made the type of commitment advocates would like to see.
“It makes a difference to have a governor that takes the initiative on public health,” the Baltimore Democrat said. Jealous’ plan, Rosenberg said, is “very on point.”
“It touches three different aspects of the problem and shows that he’s thought about it and is committed to taking the initiative,” he said.
But Lawrence Brown, founder of the group BmoreLeadFree, is not impressed by either Hogan’s record or Jealous’ plan. He welcomed the proposal to reduce the lead poisoning threshold to 5 micrograms, saying it would make many more families eligible for relocation and abatement programs, but called the other two parts of Jealous’ plan “very insufficient.”
“Part of the reason the lead crisis is still continuing is that everybody’s taking these tiny, tepid steps,” said Brown, a professor in the School of Community Health and Policy at Morgan State University. “The Democrats and Republicans have failed Baltimore.”
Brown said a serious commitment to eliminating the lead problem would approach $2 billion. He dismissed Jealous’ promise of an added $5 million for inspections as far too little.
“That does not meet the level of the challenge that we have before us,” he said.