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Baltimore wins grant to remove health hazards from homes

It's a hidden danger that's affected the health of thousands of Baltimore City children -- hazardous lead in paint and other items in homes. Now there's a multi-million dollar effort to eliminate lead paint dangers. Rick Ritter reports.

Jacquirelyn Aquino is a high-performing member of the St. James & St. John School track team and has perfect attendance in her classes — a remarkable turnaround for the 12-year-old girl with asthma.

She used to get winded climbing a tree, and her mother, Bernice Aquino, often spent days taking her to the doctor and nights watching over her to ensure she was breathing.

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Aquino credits removal of triggers including mold, dust mites and mice, as well as lead paint, from her Belair-Edison home by the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, which has worked with Baltimore officials for years to abate the many dangers, often hidden, in the city's low-income rental housing stock.

More homes will get such improvements now. On Tuesday, U.S. Housing Secretary Julian Castro announced a nearly $4 million grant to the city for lead abatement and the cleanup of other hazards that harm city kids' health and keep them from achieving.

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Castro was flanked by Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, philanthropic and nonprofit leaders, Johns Hopkins University officials and members of the congressional delegation who fought for the funding — the first major lead-related federal grant to the city since 2012.

City officials and advocates say such funding has helped reduce the number of lead-paint poisoning cases by more than 90 percent since the mid-1990s. But because it takes so little lead to cause learning and behavioral problems in a child, new cases continue to emerge as residents move into older housing.

Lead paint was banned for sale in Baltimore in 1950 and elsewhere in 1978, yet many homes still contain it.

The grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will help abate 230 homes and assess more for mold, dust, rodents, radon and clutter, now recognized as hazards to children and their families. It can also be used to improve energy efficiency.

"Every family deserves to live in a safe and healthy home where they can see their children thrive and excel," Castro said.

Similar grants will pay for work in 3,200 homes nationwide.

Several officials and lawmakers who attended the announcement at Elmer A. Henderson: A Johns Hopkins Partnership School noted that the homes in need of work are often in the poorest neighborhoods, causing asthma and other health problems for children who are already disadvantaged.

"Asthma is the No. 1 reason children miss school," said Ruth Ann Norton, president and CEO of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, which hosted the Tuesday event.

Norton said the efforts of her 30-year-old Baltimore-based group, now in 25 cities, and others have led to improvements in the housing stock that have translated into a 65 percent reduction in hospital visits for Baltimore children and 62 percent improvement in school attendance.

U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said he has asthma and so did all the children in his neighborhood, and he thought that was normal. Missing school because of doctor visits for asthma or suffering with learning disabilities associated with lead poisoning has made many children "fall through the cracks," he said.

"Some kids come up on this earth and never get a fighting chance," Cummings said.

The event also drew Democratic Baltimore County Rep. John Sarbanes, Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels and Baltimore author and civic activist Wes Moore, and brought comments of support from others including Democratic U.S. Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Ben Cardin, who helped line up the funding.

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Public officials and private landlords have struggled to pay the massive cost of cleanup, and of claims brought by tenants who were poisoned as youngsters.

The HUD money is the first since 2012, when the city won a $2.9 million federal grant to abate lead from 200 homes. The year before the city had lost funding when HUD said the city mismanaged money and didn't fix up enough homes in need of repair.

Rawlings-Blake said too many children "start out behind the eight ball, start off in a losing position."

That's how the Aquino family felt. Bernice Aquino said she connected with Green & Healthy Homes at a fair, where she was hoping to get a lead on a job. Aquino, who now works at Hopkins, ended up with more than $13,000 in improvements to her home.

"I felt like I won the lottery," she said.

The group used other HUD money to replace leaky, lead-covered windows with energy-efficient ones; better ventilate appliances; control the rodent infestation; add weatherstripping; declutter the house; and teach Aquino the best cleaning methods. It also encased Jacquirelyn's mattress and pillows in dust-free covers and pulled up the carpet that was trapping allergens.

Completed about a year ago, the improvements saved Aquino money on her electricity bill and cleared the air of a musty smell.

"I can," said Jacquirelyn Aquino, pausing to fill her lungs with air, "breathe."

She added: "I had no idea the house was this bad. Other kids need this experience."

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