State and city regulators need to do a better job enforcing laws meant to protect children from lead poisoning if the longtime health scourge is ever to be eliminated, key lawmakers and community leaders said Monday.
Speaking in reaction to a Baltimore Sun investigation that found breakdowns in state and city oversight of rental housing containing lead-based paint, they questioned whether the enforcement effort is being managed properly and whether enough money is being spent.
Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Environmental Matters Committee, said her panel will look into why hundreds of children are still being poisoned every year in Maryland and what more can be done.
Her counterpart in the Maryland House, Del. Kumar P. Barve, said he was surprised to learn so many children have been poisoned despite state laws designed to protect them. "I find it amazing that this is still an issue," said Barve, a Montgomery County Democrat who heads the Environment and Transportation Committee. "We are going to take a look."
Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., former president of the Baltimore NAACP, said he believes lead poisoning is contributing to poor and violent conditions in some Baltimore neighborhoods. He said the state should increase fines on noncompliant landlords to raise the money to pay for more inspectors to enforce the law.
"If the issue is money, raise the fines up high enough," said Cheatham, president of the Matthew A. Henson Neighborhood Association. "They can pay for the staff that's needed to do it." The current gaps in enforcement, he said, are "inexcusable."
A Baltimore Sun investigation, published Sunday, found that the 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, their brains exposed to a contaminant that causes lasting learning and behavioral problems.
The article described how state and city agencies failed to intervene after tests showed elevated levels of toxic lead in the blood of a 3-year-old boy living in a dilapidated West Baltimore rowhouse with crumbling paint. The landlord was not required to fix the paint problem, and a year later, the boy's 1-year-old sister had lead poisoning and a brother had a high level as well.
Though rental homes old enough to have lead paint are required to pass a safety inspection, the Maryland Department of the Environment has fewer than a dozen inspectors to cover as many as 400,000 rental units statewide, the article said.
Gov. Larry Hogan's spokesman pointed out Monday that "great progress" has been made over the past two decades, with a 98 percent reduction statewide in the number of children found to be poisoned. But spokesman Matt Clark acknowledged that "there is more work to be done in order to put an end to childhood lead poisoning once and for all."
He noted that Hogan has announced plans to expand testing of Maryland children for exposure to lead, encouraging caregivers to test the blood of all 1- and 2-year-olds, no matter where they live. The state now tests only about 20 percent of all youngsters under the age of 6, though screening is targeted at communities with a history of poisoning cases.
But Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg said increased testing is "insufficient." The Baltimore Democrat argued that with limited resources, efforts need to be better targeted at those areas of the state and city with the most widespread poisoning problems.
City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke said reading that hundreds of children are still being poisoned "upset me terribly."
"It's an unacceptable situation," she said. "The state has to spend the money. The city has to spend the staffing time. We all have to support reversing this situation. There is no excuse. I know we were making progress, but systems are failing us and understaffing is failing us. We can overcome those problems, and we have to."
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake defended the city's effort, pointing to the big drop in poisoning cases over the years. She suggested any shortcomings lie at the state's doorstep.
"I'm very proud of the progress we've made in Baltimore City in dealing with lead paint ... and reducing the impact of lead on Baltimore's children and families,"Rawlings-Blake said. "We're certainly willing to work with the state, as much as they are willing, to help improve their enforcement as well."
Del. Nathanael T. Oaks, a Baltimore Democrat and longtime proponent of stronger state action, said he intends to introduce legislation next year that would broaden the state's definition of lead poisoning, requiring regulators to act when children absorb lower but still harmful levels of the toxic metal.
Last year, for instance, while 129 children were found to be poisoned in Baltimore, another 708 had less lead in their blood but still enough to warrant follow-up under guidelines set three years ago by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Oaks warned, however, that expanding regulators' responsibilities alone won't cure the problem.
"We can put all the legislation on the books that we can, but if we're not going to enforce it, it's not going to do anything."
Zafar Shah, an attorney with the Public Justice Center, noted the group's recent survey of renters facing eviction showed 41 percent reported flaking or peeling paint at their rental properties. The survey showed many of the properties were not registered with the state and, if registered, had not passed safety inspections.
"There's simply not enough enforcement," Shah said. "It's the honor system."