The Baltimore City Council announced plans Monday to hold an investigative hearing into why hundreds of children are still getting lead poisoning — a preventable condition officials vowed to eradicate six years ago.
In response to a Baltimore Sun investigation, the entire City Council joined Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke in scheduling a hearing at which they plan to call state and city officials to answer questions on why children — especially poor black kids in East and West Baltimore — are falling through the cracks of a system that was set up to protect them.
Clarke also wants to call representatives of landlords and hospitals to address the issue.
"There are still hundreds of children living in lead-poisoned rental housing in Baltimore," Clarke said Monday at City Hall. "We know the neighborhoods where it's concentrated. This is a preventable disease. There is no level of lead poisoning that is not harmful."
The Feb. 4 hearing comes in response to the Sun investigation, published in December. Members of the General Assembly also have pledged to look into the issue during the legislative session that starts this week.
The Sun investigation found that the system Maryland has set up to protect youngsters from deteriorating lead-based paint is inadequately enforced and relies on data riddled with errors. Under state law, regulators are supposed to keep track of all rental homes old enough to have lead paint, and the homes are required to pass an inspection.
But the government rarely checks. A state or city worker typically visits a rental unit only after a routine medical test finds a child has been poisoned. And even then, cases fall through the cracks.
While the number of lead-poisoning cases has fallen significantly, at least 4,900 Maryland children have been poisoned in the past decade, their brains exposed to a contaminant that causes lasting learning and behavioral problems. There are likely more victims, because not all children are tested.
The Sun article described how state and city agencies failed to intervene after tests showed elevated levels of lead in the blood of a 3-year-old boy living in a dilapidated West Baltimore rowhouse with crumbling paint. The landlord was not required to fix the paint problem, and a year later, the boy's 1-year-old sister had lead poisoning and a brother had a high lead level as well.
The article also reported that the Maryland Department of the Environment has fewer than a dozen inspectors to cover as many as 400,000 rental units statewide. A top state environmental official said the agency's enforcement efforts also are hampered by disjointed record-keeping. Property registrations, inspections and enforcement actions are all logged in different databases that cannot easily be cross-checked. Upgrading and integrating those disparate information systems would cost nearly $1 million, he said in the article, adding that the agency hopes to do that.
In her council resolution that called for the hearing, Clarke urges "a major increase" in state funding "to achieve personnel and data capacity sufficient to enforce the lead paint poisoning law effectively for the existing and hopefully expanded cohort of victims identified." She said she also plans to call city housing officials to speak at the investigative hearing.
The Hogan administration has announced plans to require that all Maryland 1- and 2-year-olds be tested for lead poisoning, declaring the new rule is needed because thousands of youngsters are still at risk of exposure but aren't being tested.