The decades-long decline in lead-poisoned children in Maryland has essentially stalled, but state officials said Thursday they are taking steps in the coming months to address gaps in the marathon effort to eliminate the environmental health threat.

Statewide, 2,622 youngsters up to age 6 were found to have harmful levels of lead in their blood last year, according to an annual report just released by the Maryland Department of the Environment. That's down 4 percent from 2012, though the number of children with seriously elevated lead levels grew slightly, from 364 to 371.


Exposure to even minute amounts of lead can harm still-developing brains and nervous systems of young children, leading to learning and behavioral problems.

The number of childhood lead poisoning cases has decreased 98 percent since 1994, when the state passed a law targeting rental homes built before 1950 — the year Baltimore city banned the use of lead paint. The vast majority of poisoned children were, and still are, in the city.

In recent years, cases have increasingly turned up in homes not covered by the law, state officials say. A majority of serious poisoning cases last year occurred either in owner-occupied homes or in rental homes built between 1950 and 1978, the year lead paint was finally banned for household use everywhere in Maryland.

Under a law passed two years ago, owners of an estimated 250,000 rental units built between those years will be required to register by Jan. 1 with the state. Whenever one of those units turns over, the landlord will be required to ensure there is no peeling, chipping or flaking paint that might be ingested by infants or toddlers.

Landlords also must notify all current tenants that they should report deteriorating paint to the state.

The state i also s preparing to take over enforcement of a federal regulation requiring all painting and home improvement contractors to take precautions against lead-paint dust when doing repairs or renovations in all housing. Horacio Tablada, land management director for the environment department, said he expects to issue proposed regulations soon for training and certifying contractors, and finalize them early next year.

Ruth Ann Norton, president of the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, hopes the state actions will make a difference.

"This allows us to get to those kids that we haven't been able to get to with protection," she said of expanded state oversight of rental homes and home repairs and renovations.

But she also urged officials not to neglect the vast majority of youngsters with relatively low levels of lead in their bodies.

"It is critically important to use this moment to recognize that we must double and triple our collective efforts to increase blood lead level testing in Maryland," Norton added," as there is no safe level."

The number of children tested statewide last year actually declined slightly, state data show. But Dr. Clifford Mitchell, assistant director for environmental health at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said his agency is moving to expand and improve testing next year.

The state hopes to begin offering new blood-lead tests through health care providers next year, Mitchell said, allowing clinicians to inform parents of youngsters' levels on the spot.

State inspectors visit homes of children whose blood-lead level is 10 micrograms per deciliter or more — state law defines that as lead poisoning. But two years ago, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared there is no safe level of exposure and set 5 micrograms per deciliter as a "reference" level for response.

Mitchell said the state intends to begin addressing the number of children with low, but still damaging, levels. The state is planning to call on doctors and health care providers to quiz parents about peeling paint in the home, and notify the state environment department of the need for an inspection.


Mitchell said officials are still working on how to monitor and enforce those results.

"A lot of it is going to be education," Mitchell said. "With these lower levels of lead it may be harder to find a source. It may be that kids are getting exposures not necessarily in their own homes."

Tablada said state officials would continue to press to eliminate the toxic exposure.

"It's a preventable disease," he said. "Children deserve better."