Seeking to break a political logjam over lead-paint poisoning, a state commission is weighing a compromise that would shield landlords from legal action if they take modest steps to reduce hazards.
The plan, drafted by the staff of the governor's Lead Paint Poisoning Commission, aims to preserve affordable housing while curbing an emerging epidemic among children, mostly in the dilapidated homes of Baltimore's poor neighborhoods.
The proposal would affect 159,000 dwellings in Maryland built before 1950, when lead-based paint was widely used. Baltimore has 69,533 of the housing units.
Resistance by landlords has stymied previous reforms. Facing a rising tide of tenants' lawsuits, some owners board up buildings rather than pay the high cost of cleaning up. Under the new plan, landlords would be required only to reduce hazards, not to eradicate dangerous paint, which children ingest as dust or flakes.
Donald Gifford, the panel's chairman and dean of the University of Maryland law school, predicted this week that the proposal would "substantially reduce the amount of lead poisoning."
Backers of the plan see it as a national model for dealing with the 3.8 million housing units nationwide that are potentially hazardous.
But the Maryland initiative faces an uncertain future. Critics fear it would allow landlords to escape liability and would not greatly reduce poisonings.
Property owners, meanwhile, have refused to endorse the proposal, partly because, as a group, they might have to spend $10 million a year statewide for a decade to upgrade older rental housing.
"What is it all going to cost, and how are we going to do it all?" said D. Robert Enten, a lobbyist for the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore.
He said the plan does address landlords' concerns about insurance and legal costs but that the property owners doubt they can afford to make the necessary repairs in the time required.
In Annapolis, legislators might balk at the cost to taxpayers, $6 million to $8 million, for state oversight of repairs and for efforts to help poisoned children.
The 15-member lead commission -- made up of health advocates, housing experts and landlords -- will review the plan at a public hearing Friday at the law school. The hearing will be at 3 p.m. in the fourth-floor conference room of the library. The panel is expected to vote Oct. 15 on recommended legislation.
Lead, once widely used in paint, gasoline, food cans and plumbing, is viewed by health officials as a major threat to young children. Lead can cause mental retardation, seizures and even death.
Even in minute doses, the metal, which has been banned from house paint since 1978, can cause reduced intelligence, learning disabilities and problems with growth, behavior and coordination. Children up to 6 years old are most vulnerable, experts say.
In 1991, 1,281 lead-poisoned children were detected in Maryland, more than 1,100 of them in the city, according to state figures. Though still being tallied, the number of poisoned children reported last year was at least twice as high, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The surge in cases stems from increased screening of children and from a federal decision to lower the level of lead exposure at which children are considered harmed.
Local and state laws require landlords to be sure that lead-based paint does not endanger children. The Maryland Court of Special Appeals recently upheld an award of nearly $500,000 to two children who lived in a West Baltimore rowhouse that had hazardous paint.
Baltimore landlords have said that the cost of cleaning up often exceeds the value of a building. And, with hundreds of lead-poisoning lawsuits pending, landlords say they no longer can get insurance.
Under the new plan, a landlord could have a pre-1950 property certified as "lead-safe" if certain "hazard reduction treatments" were used, including: removing any chipping, flaking or peeling paint; repairing windows and doors to minimize lead-paint dust; and cleaning the home with a special vacuum and detergents.
Insurance companies would not be allowed to deny coverage for properties where such improvements were made.
The plan also would require owners to notify tenants of the risks of lead poisoning and to respond within three weeks if informed of a poisoning case or of any paint deterioration.
Moreover, landlords could be required to move tenants to lead-safe housing and to pay for a poisoned child's medical treatment, which can cost $30,000 or more.
But tenants could seek no more than medical expenses from a landlord whose properties were certified as lead-safe by state-approved inspectors. Tenants also would lose any right to sue if they failed to notify landlords of the presence of young children or a pregnant woman.
"It's both a shield and a sword," Mr. Gifford said of the plan. Landlords who complied would be shielded from huge damage claims, he said, but scofflaws would still be fair game for lawsuits.
Reaction from environmentalists and health activists was mixed.
"It is a small step in the right direction, but we are disappointed it couldn't go further," said Ruth Ann Norton, director of the local Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, which supports the plan.
"The present situation is intolerable, because now we're poisoning children and not improving housing," said Clinton Bamberger, a retired UM law professor who initiated discussions with landlords that led to the formation of the commission last year.
Others see the plan as a step backward.
"There's very little that the landlords are actually going to have to do," said Dr. Ellen K. Silbergeld, a UM toxicologist and senior scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund, a national group. She said the required repairs are "poorly specified" and "largely unproven" in effectiveness against lead poisoning.
"It amounts to a grant of immunity to landlords," said Donald Ryan, director of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, another national organization.