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Lead's lethal legacy engulfs young lives; Epidemic: With poison in their blood, thousands of Baltimore's children contribute to unsettled classrooms and violent neighborhoods.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Kyle Bridges lay down in the middle of McCulloh Street on his way to school last October. He rested his too-small head on his book bag. And he told his little brother to go on without him.

"I'm sick of living," his brother recalled him saying. "I'm just gonna wait here till a truck comes and runs me over. Don't worry, I just want to die."

Kyle can barely read a word more than three letters long. He cannot do math at all, not even two plus two. He was in special education, but nothing the teachers tried or said seemed to stick. He was a playground outcast at Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary School, Booker T. Washington Middle and Highlandtown Middle.

Ridiculed as a "retard," he would lapse into confused and embarrassed gibberish. Under stress, he was prone to lash out at other kids, his teachers, his grandmother. For as far back as anyone can remember, he has had an explosive temper.

Kyle is 12 years old. His small body is loaded with lead, ingested in a succession of East Baltimore slum houses toxic with peeling paint and dust.

"Lead is associated with most of the problems this child has had in his life," says Dr. Paul Law, Kyle's physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital's Harriet Lane children's clinic. "And it's certainly the most consistent and prominent feature of his personal history. It's all over his chart."

Nearly a decade after the General Assembly passed one of the strictest laws in the nation to prevent the lead poisoning of Maryland children, Kyle is among the first generation of kids who were supposed to benefit. He is also living proof of how badly the state has failed.

Maryland continues to rank among the most toxic states in America, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, with more than four times the national average of lead-exposed children and more than 15 times the rate of lead poisonings.

The vast majority of them live in the slums of Baltimore, where invisible lead paint dust hovers in the air they breathe and clings to their toys, pacifiers and bottles.

Once ingested, lead inhibits a child's ability to absorb iron, one of the basic building blocks of brain, nerve and bone development. It also impedes a broad range of chemical transmitters that affect hearing, sight and perception.

The resulting brain and nerve damage, experts say, can trigger a cascade of secondary effects that include learning disabilities, hyperactivity, increased aggression and a greater likelihood of criminal behavior. While treatment can reverse some damage, long-term exposure can cause lifelong deficits.

In Baltimore, lead exposure constitutes an epidemic that strikes more than 7,000 children every year and is a contributing factor in the city's crisis of violent crime, failing schools and disintegrating neighborhoods, experts say.

But Maryland spends less than $1 million a year on enforcement to prevent the chain reaction of side effects in children that costs taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in special education alone, according to a state advisory board estimate.

Chronically underfunded, understaffed and outmaneuvered by a cadre of mega-landlords who control thousands of substandard rowhouses through shell corporations, city and state health officials acknowledge that they have been unable to make even modest progress in blunting the scourge.

As the Assembly reconvened last week, children's advocates, Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Parris N. Glendening began formulating what will likely be the broadest push for reform of Maryland's lead enforcement system in years.

The pledge of reform followed a series of articles in The Sun last month that showed how dozens of children were poisoned by lead in slum houses owned by a web of more than 70 corporations linked to longtime city slumlord James M. Stein.

Officials have cited the case as symptomatic of a breakdown in enforcement at nearly every level of government. But a continuing review of state and city records by the newspaper reveals an even more troubling trend.

'Killer blocks'

In the poorest quarters of the city, children are being poisoned over and over at the same addresses. And some families have been rocked by successive poisonings as they have moved through rental houses in the same neighborhoods.

Further, some streets -- such as the 900 block of N. Patterson Park Ave. -- have become infamous in neighborhood lore as "killer blocks." On this one stretch of 40 Formstone dwellings, at least 16 children have been poisoned, among them Kyle Bridges.

"Over and over again, we see kids coming out of the same houses lead poisoned," says Dr. Charles I. Shubin, director of children's health and family care at Mercy Medical Center, which manages a caseload of about 8,000 lead-exposed children.

"One generation after another, we see the same addresses, the same blocks, the same neighborhoods, the same landlords. Our kids are being poisoned while we watch."

Echoing doctors throughout the city, Shubin states: "There has been an utter and complete failure to enforce basic laws to address this thoroughly recognized threat to public health. There's no mystery here. We know where this is happening, we know why."

Fully 85 percent of the lead-poisoning cases in the state occur in Baltimore, and more than half of those come out of three compact "hot zones," according to records from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Nearly seven out of 10 children tested every year in the slum enclaves of Park Heights, Sandtown and Middle East have been exposed. Coincidentally, these neighborhoods are home to some of the city's poorest performing schools, its highest violent crime rates and its largest blocs of substandard rental housing.

"Lead is a big part of the action, unquestionably," says Dr. Herbert L. Needleman of the University of Pittsburgh Medical School and one of the nation's foremost experts on the effects of lead in children.

"In some populations, it may be the most important factor in determing a broad range of neuromotor, psychosocial and behavioral pathologies -- poor cognitive performance, hyperactivity and aggression being particularly well-established traits.

"It's a very potent metabolic poison."

And for poor children, Needleman notes, it can shackle them for life.

If diagnosed and treated early enough, middle-class children have a much greater likelihood of recovering from lead poisoning and returning to relatively normal levels of functioning between the ages of 5 and 10. But children lower on the socio-economic ladder are far more likely to be poisoned repeatedly and less likely to receive the same level of care.

"It can put them so far behind at the beginning of the race of life that they never make up the lost ground," Needleman says, "particularly as they deal with all the other pathologies in their environment -- crime, drugs, malnutrition, neglect, alcoholism -- and particularly if the exposure is persistent.

"Lead sets them up to fail across the board."

'Getting the lead'

Within a four-block area around a tan brick schoolhouse in East Baltimore, lead has been altering the course of young lives for more than 30 years.

Known as "Zombieland" for the pie-eyed addicts who frequent its thriving illegal drug markets, the neighborhood around Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary School has produced at least 200 confirmed cases of lead poisoning since 1970, a computer analysis of Health Department records shows.

Even that represents a bare fraction of the actual cases, doctors and tenants say.

Up and down Patterson Park Avenue, Eager Street, Biddle, Bradford, Chase, Milton, Montford and Port -- in one low-income household after another -- families have kept the tattered records of their poisoned children for decades.

They call it "getting the lead." Their shorthand for the phenomenon is a number.

In Zombieland, every child has a number.

The number is a test result, a measure of the micrograms of lead in a unit of a child's blood. Here, some children are tested two or three times a year as doctors at the nearby Harriet Lane Clinic and Kennedy Krieger Institute monitor their exposure in what is perhaps Baltimore's worst hot zone.

Under state law, every child who tests at a 10 gets reported to the Maryland Department of the Environment for inclusion in a national database of lead-exposed kids.

"Unfortunately," says Dr. John Andrews of Harriet Lane, "we don't get terribly excited by lead levels of 10 or 11 or 12 -- for the simple reason that we routinely see kids that high, and higher. It's a ubiquitous byproduct of life in this neighborhood.

"We also know that kids at this threshold can suffer serious, long-term effects if their exposure is sustained long enough. And our kids are being exposed every day. But we don't do anything for them, and we don't do enforcement at all, until they reach this arbitrary limit."

That limit, set by the state legislature, is a level 15. Only then is a child considered poisoned in Maryland. Only then are city health inspectors notified about a problem address. But there are only six of them. And their days are full of snarling dogs, rat-infested alleys, frightened tenants and landlords well-practiced at evasion.

"We know from what our inspectors tell us that a handful of landlords are responsible for 70 percent of the lead cases in the city," says Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city health commissioner. "The problem is that you have to pierce 16 corporations to figure out that the same guy owns 250 houses where kids have been hurt.

"Meanwhile, we're getting fresh reports every day at other addresses -- and the law requires us to follow up every one. We don't have anywhere near the staff or the funding to do any kind of consistent enforcement or targeting of repeat offenders. So they just go on poisoning kids, knowing we don't have the resources to stop them."

At levels above 25, children and their families are referred to specialists for intervention counseling.

At 35 to 40, where Kyle Bridges' peaked before his suicide attempt, they are candidates for hospital admission and a painful course of chemical injections known as "chelation" to strip the lead from their bodies.

And because most east-side families are at or below the poverty level, taxpayers foot much of the bill.

"Our priorities are completely backwards," says Dr. Ellen K. Silbergeld, a professor at the University of Maryland medical school and one of the nation's leading experts on lead toxicology. "Every time this has come before the legislature, we are told that a serious enforcement program to prevent this would be too expensive -- as if we aren't paying for this already.

"In terms of criminal justice, public health and schools, the costs are virtually incalculable at this point, not to mention what it does to the kids."

Poisoned children

Walk the streets of Zombieland, and that much quickly becomes clear.

Talk to Jeanette Alston, 52, who has toiled most of her life as a cook while struggling to raise her children and a succession of displaced nieces, nephews and neighborhood waifs in her rented rowhouse near Patterson Park and Chase.

Her son was poisoned here in 1979, records show, followed by two of her nieces in 1982.

"Leonardo was a 26," she recalls wearily. "The girls were both in the 30s -- very high."

The successive cases over such a relatively short period precipitated several frantic rounds of repairs by landlord Muriel Miller, who fixed or replaced most of the windows, floors and woodwork in the house as the city citations rolled in.

Ultimately, Miller and her husband would be cited in more than 15 lead cases at properties they owned, including three in the past five years.

"We tried to do the right thing," says Miller, now a widow in her 70s. "There's a lot of problems with other landlords, I know, but I don't think my husband and I were ever among them. We always did our best to take care of our properties. But it's expensive, very expensive, and a lot of these neighborhoods have only declined over the years."

For her part, Alston spent the past two decades running in and out of doctors' offices, teacher conferences and the Department of Social Services, tending to one lead-poisoned child in the family after another.

So why didn't she move?

"Same reason as everybody else in this neighborhood," Alston says. "I couldn't afford it. I was stuck, all the same financial problems people got all around here, you know? You struggle paycheck to paycheck, you're always behind in something. Gas bills. Electric bills. The kids got to eat, right?

"You think any of us would be living here if we had a choice?"

Over in the 2400 block of Eager St., hard by the railroad tracks that run behind Rayner Browne Elementary, Cliff Love has made at least one choice.

The 24-year-old warehouse worker and father of two stands in a mist of rain, sweeping his arm downhill toward a wall of boarded-up rowhouse shells. He recounts how landlords regularly cruise his block offering "no money down, rent-to-own" deals on their vacant properties.

"They think people are stupid," he spits. "They think we don't know what's happened in them houses. You buy one of them houses, your kids will be messed up for the rest of their lives."

Families have come and gone from this street, sometimes in tears, he says, driven off by high lead levels in their babies and deplorable living conditions. He doesn't know exactly how many kids have been poisoned, but in the oral history of the neighborhood, 2400 Eager is known as a killer block.

Health Department records show at least 19 children have been poisoned on this one stretch of Eager Street.

The city citations reveal a rogue's gallery of repeat offenders that includes slumlord James Stein and one of his best customers, convicted drug dealer George A. Dangerfield Jr., who bought more than 30 slum houses from Stein on installment plans.

Corporations controlled by the pair have owned 2437 E. Eager for the past decade, when at least two children were poisoned at the address. Elsewhere in the city, records show, their more than 100 corporations have been implicated in the lead poisonings of more than 80 kids.

At Rayner Browne Elementary, Dangerfield's name is synonymous with lead. He owns more than a dozen substandard houses in the four blocks around the school, and his tenants' children have been coming here for speech therapy and learning disabilities for years.

Talk to parents outside the red schoolhouse door, and everyone knows his name and maybe has a friend or family member who rented from him.

Thomas Taylor, 32, a roofer and father of two, lived a couple of doors away from one of Dangerfield's houses on Collington Avenue and recalls neighbors complaining bitterly about the landlord. But it's par for the course on these streets, he shrugs.

"My little boy got a 16 when he was 11 months old," he says. "Every kid on our block, it seems, gets poisoned at one time or other. Every kid in the neighborhood gets the lead. Don't seem to matter who the landlord is, they're all bad in this part of town."

His son, Ka-ron, is now 7, a second-grader at Rayner Browne. He's doing well, his father says proudly, "when he's not acting up in class."

"Ever since he got the lead, he's been hyper -- like to drive me crazy sometimes," Taylor says. "He was on Ritalin for a while, but we're trying to get by without it now. I don't want him spending his whole life on drugs."

Ka-ron grins and darts for the door, waving goodbye to his father.

"Behave yourself in there, you hear!" his dad calls after him.

Classroom troubles

Inside the neat-as-a-pin school, the usual morning bedlam unfolds in the cafeteria under the watchful eye of Danette Murrill, who has spent most of her nine-year teaching career at Rayner Browne.

As energetic as an aerobics coach, the Morgan State University graduate and wife of a police officer serves as the instruction coordinator for the student body of 350 kids. She estimates that up to one in five children in the K-through-5 school has been poisoned by lead.

"They don't stay on task, they're very fidgety, they're uncooperative in class and they have great difficulty retaining information," Murrill says matter-of-factly. "As a teacher, it's very frustrating because you always have at least five or six of them in a class -- but you don't always know who they are."

Neither the state nor the city alerts the school district when a child is confirmed to be poisoned. As one result, there are no programs tailored to the particular needs of lead-poisoned kids. The most severe cases are routinely shuttled into the system's overburdened special education program. The rest remain on the rolls.

"There's no special designation for them," Murrill says. "There's no tracking in place to help us chart their progress. In fact, we usually only find out about their lead history when we have a major incident that requires parental intervention.

"We sit down with mom or dad, and they tell us: 'Oh, Johnny has always been that way, ever since he got the lead.' I can't tell you how often we hear that. These kids have lots of issues -- drug abuse in the family, neglect, substandard living conditions. But the big one we hear about all the time from our parents is the lead poisoning."

On average, the school copes with five or six major classroom disruptions a day that require another staff member to help the teacher restore order, Murrill says. And in the most violent classroom disruptions, lead is usually the common denominator.

"It affects not only the child involved," she says, "but everyone else in the room as well. You can forget about teaching until you get that kid out of the room. And then it takes another 15 minutes to get everybody else settled down and back on focus."

The upheaval is reflected in elementary school test scores, she believes, and not just at Rayner Browne, where nine out of 10 kids in the third grade fail the statewide reading exam.

Public records suggest a troubling coincidence.

In the four blocks around nearby Tench Tilghman Elementary, more than 150 children have been confirmed as lead poisoned since 1970. At the school, 19 out of 20 fail the statewide reading test. To the south, around Commodore John Rodgers Elementary, more than 100 kids have been poisoned -- and nine out of 10 third-graders fail the test.

"You see stories in the newspaper all the time about how poorly kids in the city schools are performing on state tests," Murrill says. "And everybody wants to look at programs and teaching methods. Nobody ever looks at what these kids are coming through the door with.

"Well, our kids are coming through the door with lead in their bloodstreams."

'Like a time bomb'

Kyle Bridges came through the door in 1994, loaded with lead.

Medical records at Johns Hopkins show that it had been in his bloodstream since he was a year old. And he had been continually exposed to peeling lead paint in a succession of slum rental houses in East Baltimore.

Built largely during the Civil War era with cheap materials and slapdash labor, the east side was a vast dormitory for the workers who streamed into Baltimore to operate what was then the largest unblockaded port, rail hub and packing center in the South.

So vital was Baltimore to the North's war effort that Union troops occupied the city throughout the conflict.

Over the past 40 years, that cut-rate housing stock has increasingly fallen under the ownership of speculators unwilling or unable to do the basic maintenance necessary to keep it livable. As a result, the crumbling structures have been shedding their toxic lead skin.

Kyle carries that legacy in his veins.

Throughout his early childhood, blood tests placed him consistently in the red zone.

March 15, 1991: a 36.

Six months later: a 32.

Four months later: a 24.

Three months later: a 27.

His head was undersized for his body, a familiar trait among poisoned kids because lead inhibits the body's ability to absorb iron, depriving the growing child of the minerals necessary for normal bone growth. Lead-poisoned kids tend to be shorter and smaller, Dr. Needleman says.

Kyle also had coordination problems and a lopsided gait, speech and hearing difficulties, and a propensity for explosive classroom outbursts. All are familiar traits, because lead impedes normal brain and nerve development, rendering children much more prone to frustration at their inability to master basic skills.

"Today," says Dr. Law, "we'd probably recommend him for chelation. With levels this high, over this prolonged a period, you're well into the stage when you'd expect to see serious and lasting deficits."

Kyle's grandmother, Bessie Smith, puts it differently.

"He was like a time bomb," she says. "The least little thing and he'd go off. He'd snap."

A courageous and very tired woman of 50, Smith does not shrink from telling her grandson's story. She volunteered to release all his records and to have his caretakers discuss his case.

"This has got to stop somewhere," she says, sitting in the living room of a tiny two-bedroom rowhouse in the 500 block of N. Collington Ave. that she shares with four grandchildren. "All these kids, too many kids, they're all over the streets dealing drugs and fighting and shooting each other. I'm afraid that's where Kyle is headed.

"I know that's where he's headed."

Smith acknowledges that her daughter, Kyle's mother, has a long history of drug abuse and used cocaine when pregnant. That's how Smith wound up with legal custody of Kyle and his brother, scraping to get by on $417 a month in public assistance in a house smaller than a mobile home.

The children have trailed behind her almost since birth, clinging to their grandmother as their only lifeline.

One by one, they have been poisoned by lead. Kyle was the first. It happened in the 900 block of N. Patterson Park Ave. in June 1989, Health Department records show.

"He was a 26 then," Smith recounts. "But that was just the beginning. It just went up and up and up from there. And he got worse and worse and worse."

Mood swings

Alarmed by blood test results that showed Kyle rapidly rising over a 30, Smith packed up the kids and moved to the 500 block of N. Duncan, then the 2400 block of E. Eager, then finally to Collington Avenue in 1993. By then, all four had been poisoned, and Kyle was riding a roller coaster of alarming lead tests.

It was lodged in his bones, almost certainly in his teeth. He had been disciplined or suspended from three schools. Last fall, he was arrested at Highlandtown Middle for showing up in the schoolyard while on suspension -- armed with a set of heavy steel bolt cutters.

"That's when they brought me into court to review my court-appointed guardianship," Smith says. "All I could think was, 'Hallelujah, maybe now I'll finally get some help.' Then he tried to kill himself."

Alerted by Kyle's classmates that the boy was lying in the middle of McCulloh Street, teachers from Booker T. Washington Middle School rushed out and dragged him from harm's way on Oct. 14.

In a matter of weeks, he had transited through one hospital, a state youth detention center and at least two hearings before being placed at St. Vincent's Center in Timonium shortly before Christmas. The sheltered special education school treats kids with serious learning disabilities and emotional problems.

There, he was assessed as a level-two suicide risk on a scale of three. Two medications were prescribed to control his aggressive behavior and mood swings.

"He's well aware that he's not like other kids," says Kenneth Young, director of the boys unit at St. Vincent's. "And he knows he's been poisoned. How much else he understands about why he acts the way he does is hard to say.

"He's got positives for multiple complexities -- prenatal substance abuse, lead poisoning, neglect, substandard housing. He's really overburdened with deficits, so it's difficult to say which factor is most responsible. But the most consistent, long-term problem he's had over the years is lead poisoning, no question.

"It makes all his other problems that much worse. And it very well could be the main cause."

'The same scenario'

On the 900 block of N. Patterson Park Ave. -- the killer block near Rayner Browne Elementary where Kyle and 15 other kids have been poisoned -- neighbors remember Miss Bessie and her grandkids and the terrible things that happened at 909.

"Miss Bessie's family got it bad," sighs Wayne Booker, 48, a cook at the Johns Hopkins medical school who often volunteers to board up vacant houses for civic groups. "But they aren't the only ones. There's been poisonings all up and down this block -- 911, 919, 920, 931. And it's all the same scenario.

"Landlords do some cosmetic work, family moves in, six months later, bang, the kids got the lead."

Across the street from Miss Bessie's old address, the next generation resides.

In a house full of cracked and peeling woodwork, shattered plaster, worn floors and exposed electrical wiring -- a house with a teeming rat warren in the back yard mounded with fresh droppings and gnawed chicken bones -- Tarik Williams' latest lead test results just came in last week.

His second birthday is four weeks away. His blood lead level now stands at 11, more than double what it was nine months ago. His case has been reported to the federal government. But he does not qualify for intervention under Maryland law.

Quite simply, Tarik does not have enough poison in his bloodstream yet.

"It's not at the level at which the state ordinarily qualifies him for services," says Dr. Andrews, Tarik's supervising physician at the Harriet Lane Clinic. "That his lead level is rising -- at this age and in this neighborhood -- is not unusual.

"That it has doubled in such a relatively short period of time is concerning. But the question we face is one of resources. We have a whole lot of kids who are worse off than him. And the state has made a decision that his case is not serious enough yet."

Last week, a private lead inspection paid for by The Sun confirmed hazardous lead conditions throughout the house.

"Over one-third of the components tested at this property contain elevated lead-based paint levels that were in poor paint condition," wrote Shannon Cavaliere of ARC Environmental Inc. in a final report to the newspaper. "These deteriorated lead-based paint surfaces are resulting in excessive lead-dust levels in the house (averaging between 4 and 22 times the state threshold limit)."

Cavaliere noted, however, that most of the lead was coming from grossly deteriorated window frames in the house.

The single most hazardous component in older homes, windows act as lead dust generators. As they are opened and closed, painted surfaces rub against each other, producing invisible clouds of toxic dust.

"For the cost of a couple thousand dollars in replacement windows, this house would be relatively safe for kids to live in," Cavaliere said. "It's a minor investment, and it saves a lot of grief down the road."

City records show there has already been much grief at the house.

At least one child was poisoned at 906 N. Patterson Park Ave. in 1982, before Tarik Williams' family moved in. The house was owned at the time by the same network of corporations that owns 909 N. Patterson Park Ave., directly across the street, where Kyle Bridges was poisoned in 1989.

Those corporations operate out of the same address at 214 E. 25th St., the headquarters for more than two dozen real estate firms that have been implicated in the lead poisonings of over 20 children, records show.

Associated with those corporations as an officer or agent -- and cited in at least five lead cases by name -- is Marc G. Medin, 45, of Pikesville, the owner of dozens of slum houses in the city and a sometime business associate of James M. Stein.

"I have nothing to say, OK?" Medin said when asked about his companies. "I'm going to go with that. I have nothing to say."

Sun research librarian Robert Schrott contributed to this article.

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