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Lead-paint oversight of rental housing faulted

Maryland regulators are still having trouble keeping tabs on how many rental housing units have hazardous lead paint, even as the number of homes and apartments they must oversee to protect children from lead poisoning expands.

A legislative audit released last week found that the Maryland Department of the Environment failed to follow up on thousands of property owners who did not renew annual registrations in 2013. The agency identified 8,461 owners who were nearly a year late renewing registrations, according to auditors. But regulators failed to put more than 1,100 of those owners on a list used to find out why they had not re-registered their units.

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The finding is similar to one from an audit released last April, when auditors said the environment department had failed to follow up on more than 900 rental units whose owners did not renew annual registrations through 2011.

State law has required for years that all housing units built before 1950 and rented to families be registered and have lead-paint risks dealt with. Youngsters who ingest even tiny amounts of lead dust or paint flakes can suffer lasting health problems.

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Nearly 25,000 owners registered more than 74,000 units last year, according to MDE spokesman Jay Apperson.

Beginning this year, lawmakers have expanded the coverage of Maryland's lead poisoning prevention law to include rental units built before 1978 — the year lead paint was no longer allowed to be sold for use inside homes nationwide. State officials say they have mailed letters to more than 157,000 owners of properties of that vintage, reminding them to register if their units have lead paint and are rented to families.

In response to the latest audit findings, state environmental officials said they have shifted registrations to a new computer database for better tracking.

Despite the registration lapses, Hilary D. Miller, deputy director of the environment department's land management administration, said the agency's regulation of lead paint hazards in rental housing has been successful. The annual number of children poisoned by lead has declined by more than 98 percent since the law was passed two decades ago, she noted.

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