AN EPIDEMIC of lead poisoning courses through Baltimore's inner city, but testing shows children are exposed and poisoned in almost every Maryland county.
The cases in rural and suburban areas don't climb into the thousands as they do in Baltimore, but no one in Carroll County or Anne Arundel, Howard or Harford should be consoled to learn that only a few of their were exposed and that fewer had lead levels deemed dangerous.
In Montgomery County, the state's most affluent, 8,044 children were tested in 1998 under the Medicaid program. Of these, 101 had been "exposed" to lead -- and seven had levels of lead spiking into the danger zone, 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood or higher.
In Baltimore, by contrast, 3,949 children -- or 22 percent of those tested -- had elevated lead levels. In Dorchester County the figure was 14.4 percent; in Somerset, 13.1; and in Caroline 10.7.
Children covered by Medicaid are tested because poor families face the greatest risk of lead exposure, because the deleterious effects are profound and because the law requires the test. Since most other children aren't tested despite the lead-based paint that remains in many houses, the actual number of exposed children can be no more than guesswork.
The irreversible damage, though, is well documented. Lead blocks the body's ability to absorb iron and leaves its victims with underdeveloped brains. It inhibits cognitive development, can lead to emotional difficulties and, in high enough doses, to death.
Lead-based paint was used widely in Maryland and other states before it was banned in 1978. As houses age, paint degrades into flakes and then dust and becomes more easily consumed. Even when capped by layers of lead-free paint, toxins can "chalk" through to foul the air.
All parents who can test their child should -- and remove the hazard if necessary. Abatement must be done carefully, of course, because that process can be damaging if not done properly. In poor neighborhoods, government must do the abatement.
The Childhood Lead Registry maintained by the state Department of the Environment now represents a useful roadmap for state and local officials anxious to abate lead hazards and to relocate children who are at risk of further poisoning.
Other states use the data in tandem with strict measures sanctioning landlords who rent properties that are not lead safe. The results are striking when compared to Baltimore's.
In Boston, about 112 children tested had lead levels in the "danger zone" of 10 or higher -- compared with 5,983 in Baltimore in 1997. Of those in Baltimore, 1,600 had levels in excess of 20. Some cases soar into the 30s and 40s.
Boston and Milwaukee have used testing to spur enforcement and uncompromising efforts to purge houses of their capacity for poisoning. They're also holding landlords responsible when children are poisoned in their properties.
Unless the data and the laws are used similarly in Maryland, the carefully kept records will be nothing less than an indictment of the state's lack of action.