Funds near release to fight lead poison


After a months-long delay, city and state officials said yesterday they are poised to attack Baltimore's epidemic of childhood lead poisoning by cleaning more than 500 homes riddled with the toxic substance in the next year.

The joint lead-poisoning campaign, promised in January by Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Mayor Martin O'Malley, has been stalled for several months as legislators blocked release of $5 million in state funds for the effort until they were convinced city and state officials could work together effectively.

Legislative analysts had criticized a plan submitted in May by the Glendening administration as being disjointed and skimpy.

Heads of three state and two city agencies met yesterday with members of the House Appropriations Committee in Annapolis to say they have addressed those concerns and to urge the lawmakers to release the money.

"We really feel we've come a long way in coordinating [city and state efforts] in reducing the incidence of lead poisoning in Baltimore City," state Housing Secretary Raymond A. Skinner said.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who chairs a health subcommittee, said lawmakers would decide whether to free some or all of the $5 million after reviewing a revised plan to be submitted by the end of the week.

"We want to make sure the money is well spent," Rosenberg said. At the same time, he said, "we need to get started."

City and state officials have been meeting for months to work out details of how to test more infants and toddlers for lead poisoning, and how to launch other steps to prevent new cases. About 1,200 poisoning cases a year occur in the city, primarily in inner-city neighborhoods with older rental housing.

Officials estimate there are about 150,000 housing units statewide that are likely to contain lead-based paint because they were built before 1950. Lead paint was banned nationwide in 1978.

Once lawmakers release the $5 million, state officials say they are ready to begin work on reducing lead-poisoning hazards in 250 city homes and to supply funds to homeowners or landlords to replace lead-painted windows in another 100 homes.

The city, though unable to commit as much money to the effort as O'Malley originally promised, plans to reduce lead-poisoning risks in an additional 250 to 300 homes, said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner.

The mayor had pledged in January to earmark $6 million in federal funds annually to the lead-poisoning campaign for the next three years. But cash-strapped city officials say they have rounded up less than $4.6 million for this year. Some of the money promised by O'Malley was committed to other projects, Beilenson said.

Even without the infusion of new state funds, Beilenson said, the O'Malley administration has fulfilled its promise to take stronger enforcement action against owners of run-down rental housing where children have been poisoned by dust or flakes from deteriorating lead-based paint.

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