Ehrlich bill aims at lead problem

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. proposed legislation yesterday that would prompt earlier action to treat children with lead poisoning and to reduce lead hazards in housing once a child has been poisoned.

Children's advocates said the legislation, part of a nationwide campaign, is a positive step.

But they said the ultimate measure of Maryland's commitment to eliminating lead poisoning would be how much money the governor has put in his budget -- scheduled to be released today -- to repair houses before young children are exposed.

"It is not a panacea, but it is progress," said Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who has been pushing for tougher lead-paint regulations for almost two decades, called the governor's proposal "significant," but added, "I just don't know what's in the budget. We have to see the budget."

Ehrlich's announcement came during one of two news conferences yesterday on children's issues.

The other focused on pre-kindergarten education but did not include new initiatives.

The governor said he believes resolving the lead problem is critical to helping Maryland's children to achieve academically because lead poisoning hurts a child's ability to learn.

'Silent destroyer'

"It is the silent destroyer," Ehrlich said. "This is a statewide and indeed a nationwide problem."

His proposal would lower the lead level in a child's blood that triggers notices to a landlord of a need to address lead-paint problems.

The legislation also would lower the blood-lead level that requires a landlord to offer medical treatment and relocation assistance for poisoned children.

For notification to landlords, the trigger would drop from 15 parts per billion of lead in a child's blood to 10 parts per billion. Landlords could be required to offer money for treatment and possible relocation when children have blood-lead levels of 15 parts per billion, down from the current standard of 20.

The governor's measure could more than double the number of children who receive treatment and relocation benefits statewide.

There were 259 children who tested with blood levels of 20 parts per billion or higher in 2003. Another 331 had levels in the 15-to-19 range -- a group that would now be included under the governor's plan.

'A great initiative'

"It's a great initiative," said House Speaker Michael E. Busch, an Anne Arundel County Democrat. "It's an important issue, especially for children. You will see a more bipartisan effort."

Alfred Singer, a board member and former president of the Property Owners Association of Greater Baltimore, said the organization is supporting the governor's plan. He said the state's lead poisoning prevention program has been helpful in protecting many children, and "it's now time to extend those benefits."

Others tempered their praise.

Don Ryan, executive director of the Alliance for Healthy Homes, a national advocacy group based in Washington, called the proposed legislation "a step in the right direction." But he noted that many other states already act to treat children at the lower blood-lead level Ehrlich proposed yesterday as Maryland's trigger.

'Prevention problem'

He and other advocates contend that states should be working to prevent lead poisoning altogether, rather than simply responding sooner when a child is exposed. They note that research has shown that even low levels of lead in very young children can cause long-term learning and behavior problems.

"It's a prevention problem; it's not a reaction problem," said Dennis Livingston, a Baltimore-based consultant on making houses safe. "By the time you find any kid with a lead level, it's too late."

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner, called the proposals "all decent, but very small steps" toward solving the problem.

More widespread testing of young children -- and of housing -- is needed, he said. The key to eliminating lead poisoning is to prevent it, he said, by fixing up older houses before children can ingest lead dust.

With more than 400,000 housing units in the state built before 1950, when lead paint was widely used, the question is how much money the state will commit to making older housing safe, Beilenson said.

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