Lead treatment improves, but slums claim new victims


Gone are the days of the 1950s when about 10 children died in Baltimore every year from a gruesome condition known as "encephalopathy" - their brains swollen and bleeding from severe lead poisoning.

Such fatalities are now all but unheard of, largely because of advances in testing and treatment.

But doctors at the Kennedy Krieger Institute in East Baltimore note that many children in the city's slums are still receiving potentially lethal doses of lead paint that are all but certain to cause brain damage.

"Don't let your landlord or anyone else tell you that it's a thing of the past," said Tiffany Sanford, 24, who lived at the institute for three weeks last month while her child underwent treatment for a dangerous dose of lead paint. "Let me be the one to inform everybody that this is real."

On her knee sat her 16-month-old daughter, Bobbi Sanford-Maddox - pigtails sprouting in all directions, big brown eyes, adorable in a denim dress - who may face a lifetime of learning disorders and behavioral problems.

The family was referred to the institute after a routine physical revealed that the toddler had 70 micrograms of lead in a deciliter of her blood - enough to poison two babies.

Down the hall, doctors were treating a little boy with a lead level of 103.

Amid scientific debate over the effects of comparatively low doses of lead, doctors at Kennedy Krieger have discovered lead levels in Baltimore children as high as 270 in recent years.

This, nearly a half-century after groundbreaking research by Dr. J. Julian Chisolm Jr. revealed that children in the slums of East Baltimore had up to six times more lead in their systems than severely poisoned industrial workers.

Kennedy Krieger Institute is named in honor of the U.S. president whose activism helped change federal policies toward disabled children and for Baltimore attorney Zanvyl Krieger, its most generous donor.

But it is Chisolm who brought the institute its reputation as one of the world's leading treatment centers for children with lead poisoning.

Almost 50 years after his first research project took him door to door in the east-side slums around the Johns Hopkins Medical Institution, Chisolm offers a blunt assessment of the city's progress in fighting the lead scourge.

"I've seen some of those same houses recently, and they haven't changed," he said. "If anything, they're worse today than they were then."

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