On lead poisoning, the city dodges artfully


AFTER many years, the problem of lead poisoning is finally receiving some well-deserved attention. Unfortunately, your series by Jack Reilly (Other Voices, Feb. 4-6) was so full of errors that it did more harm than good. Reilly has little background or experience in lead poisoning prevention, and his comments on the report of the Baltimore City Lead Poisoning Prevention Task Force reflected this lack. Let me help set the record straight.

The federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has categorized lead poisoning as the most serious environmental health problem affecting children in the United States today. At blood-lead levels far below what is currently classified as "lead poisoning," children can suffer IQ reduction, primarily affecting language ability, and a loss of attention span. Often a degree of hyperactivity also occurs. Figures compiled by the federal government, verified by studies in Baltimore, indicate that 3 million to 4 million children nationally may have blood-lead levels high enough to have such an effect. In Baltimore, that translates to more than 30,000 children at risk of permanent brain damage.

If you are one of those children, your future is in jeopardy. All of us are paying the bill. Millions are spent annually identifying and treating children in Maryland, even though most lead poisoning is without symptoms, goes undiagnosed and has no treatment. The state spends $450 million each year on special education, primarily for children with reading disabilities and attention disorders. This is precisely the type of damage caused by low-level lead poisoning. And though lead poisoning is viewed as a problem of poor children, it affects many middle-class children as well.

The city task force pointed out that lead paint, whether in low-income or upper-income property, is a "potential" health problem. Lead dust, ingested by young children though normal hand-to-mouth activity, is an immediate hazard. The simple opening and closing of a painted window can generate significant levels of lead dust, as can the sanding and scraping of paint when homes are remodeled. Few realize that pregnant women and children should never be present when an older home is being remodeled.

The cost of lead paint abatement will be high, though not as high as claimed by Reilly. The cost of not abating, however, is also high. A study commissioned by the CDC estimates that for every dollar spent on lead abatement over the next 20 years, society will reap $2 in benefits -- reduced medical costs, fewer problem pregnancies, reduced costs of special education and increased earning power by individuals not disabled by the effects of lead.

The problem becomes one of meeting the cost of abatement now in order to avoid paying a higher bill later. The Baltimore task force realized that stopgap measures to ease immediate pressures would fail. A long-term program was proposed, including measures providing immediate relief for property owners, combined with a strategy to cover the cost of abatement over the next several decades.

The task force recommended that, instead of immediately requiring property owners to engage in costly abatement of all lead-based paint when a child is poisoned, homes should initially be inspected for lead dust. In cases where homes otherwise met housing code standards, if dust levels were found to be high, the owner would be given the opportunity to reduce those lead dust levels through cleaning and maintenance. Only if the owner of such property failed in this attempt would lead paint inspection be completed and abatement required.

Even if abatement were required, under both city and state guidelines, the costly and hazardous removal of lead paint is not generally recommended. In fact, the Maryland Department of the Environment and Baltimore task force members have pioneered national efforts to test the safe and effective, but less costly, "encapsulation" of lead-painted surfaces.

Some Baltimore landlords, instead of supporting such efforts, sought to convince the General Assembly to pass a bill that would allow them to evict families of lead-poisoned children and board up scarce, low-income housing, adding to neighborhood blight and the further erosion of property values.

Middle-income couples, planning a family and buying an older home, might wish to insure the safety of their children by abating lead hazards at the time of purchase. Adding the cost of abatement to a 30-year mortgage would make it more affordable. The expense, if recouped at resale, would be an investment not only in the property, but in children's good health.

Such a family would be disappointed today in Maryland. The bank would probably refuse a loan for abatement, and no value would be added to the house as a result of abatement. The task force dilemma, therefore, was to find a means of creating value for abatement. It suggested a phased-in program of education and inspection requirements designed to enhance, over time, the value of a lead-abated home. If this were successful, the private market ultimately would cover the cost of lead abatement through increased property values. This plan is outlined in the task force report. Unfortunately, nothing has happened with it.

Lead-poisoned children will not go away. If physicians follow the CDC recommendations and begin testing all children for lead poisoning, the demand for abatement will grow, lawsuits will increase and the plight of property owners will worsen.

The problem can be met head-on with a thoughtful, long-range program to avoid catastrophe in the housing market, or we can continue to appease special-interest groups until the catastrophe overwhelms us. The task force report, while not perfect, was the product of lengthy deliberation by concerned citizens representing the real estate and banking industry, insurance and landlord concerns, medical and community groups, experts and lay people. The public, one year after the completion of the report, has yet to view its contents. Thus, the city chooses artful dodging over long-term solutions. Those most likely to suffer from such a strategy are the children.

Jim Keck, former deputy commissioner of housing and policy director on lead poisoning in the Health Department, now heads a company training lead abatement workers.

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