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Council told of shortage of resources to prevent lead poisoning

Thousands of rental homes in Baltimore are believed to contain dangerous lead paint, but the city has money to repair only 230 of them over the next three years, a top housing official testified Thursday.

At a City Hall hearing called in response to a Baltimore Sun investigation, government officials and others also agreed that the city and state lack the money and manpower to enforce the system Maryland has set up to protect children from the dangers of deteriorating lead-based paint.

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"We just don't have the full resources," Horacio A. Tablada, deputy state environment secretary, told members of the Baltimore City Council.

City Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke called the investigative hearing after a Sun investigation published in December found that the state's system for safeguarding young people from the toxic effects of flaking and chipped lead-based paint is inadequately enforced and relies on data riddled with errors.

"There are still hundreds of children living in lead-poisoned rental housing in Baltimore," Clarke said in calling for the hearing. "We know the neighborhoods where it's concentrated. This is a preventable disease. There is no level of lead poisoning that is not harmful."

Under state law, regulators are supposed to keep track of all rental units built before 1978, when lead paint was banned nationally, and the owners are required to hire a private inspector to certify that the homes are safe.

But the investigation found that the government rarely checks. A city or state worker typically visits a rental unit only after a medical test finds a child has been poisoned — and even then, cases fall through the cracks.

While the number of lead-poisoning cases has 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. There are likely more victims, because not all children are tested.

The Sun article described how state and city agencies failed to intervene after tests showed elevated levels of 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 lead level as well.

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

Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen testified Thursday that as a result of government efforts, the number of new lead poisoning cases in Baltimore dropped by 86 percent in the city from 2002 and 2012. But Wen agreed the job is far from done. She said 56,000 Baltimore children under the age of 6 are regarded as being at risk for lead poisoning.

Ruth Ann Norton, president of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, an advocacy group, urged the City Council to lobby the federal government for more funding but also search for support from private investors and landlords and in the form of tax credits.

"The next mayor should consider a public bond" to raise funds, Norton said later. "We need resources."

Lead poisoning has such potent long-term effects on brain development and behavior that combating it is extremely cost-effective, Norton said. She cited a study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that found every dollar invested in lead-poisoning prevention has a return of more than $220 to the taxpayer.

Maryland's system of relying on private inspectors to examine and certify that housing is lead safe has drawn recent attention. State officials said this month they have urged nearly 400 Maryland 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 properties certified as lead-free actually had lead paint or hadn't been properly tested, the agency said.

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