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Baltimore lawmakers push legislation to get tougher on lead poisoning

Lead poisoning, once epidemic among Baltimore’s poor, is now much now less common, but it is still claiming young victims years after authorities vowed to eradicate it. At least 4,900 Maryland children have been poisoned by lead in the past decade, their brains exposed to a toxic contaminant that often causes lasting learning and behavioral problems. (Baltimore Sun video)

With hundreds of children still poisoned by lead each year in Baltimore, city lawmakers are pushing for a series of bills in Annapolis to get tougher on landlords, sue lead paint companies, conduct better state investigations and fix lead-contaminated school drinking fountains.

On Friday, Baltimore’s House delegation voted to endorse two proposals to try to curb lead poisoning: one that would tighten restrictions to try to make sure landlords aren’t renting properties with chipping lead paint and another that would open up lead paint companies to lawsuits to pay for remediation programs.

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Del. Nick J. Mosby and Sen. Jill P. Carter, both of West Baltimore, are sponsoring legislation that would permit lawsuits in Baltimore courts against manufacturers of lead paint whether or not a specific company’s product can be proved to have poisoned a specific person.

Such legislation has been introduced — and killed — repeatedly in Annapolis over the past two decades, in the face of staunch industry opposition. But Mosby said Friday that he will continue to push for the legislation every year while he’s in office.

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A Baltimore jury has awarded around $2 million to a man who has permanent brain damage from being exposed to lead paint as a child.

While the number of lead poisoning cases has fallen significantly since 2002, thousands of Maryland children have been poisoned in the past decade, their brains exposed to a contaminant that causes lasting learning and behavioral problems.

In 2017 alone, 2,049 Maryland children younger than 7 tested positive for lead poisoning — including 789 kids from Baltimore.

“Young children in the city of Baltimore are still being impacted by lead paint poisoning. It’s unconscionable. …. It’s something we need to address,” Mosby said. “It’s not for us to decide. It’s for us to allow the court to decide. The manufacturers of lead paint have not paid a penny.”

The city’s House delegation also voted unanimously to back a bill sponsored by Baltimore Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg that would disallow a landlord from repossessing property for failure to pay rent unless the property owner has provided documented proof it is free of chipping lead paint.

With lead poisoning still harming hundreds of children in Maryland each year, Baltimore lawmakers in the General Assembly are pushing — once again — to hold the industry for generations of damage. To bolster their case, legislators, lawyers and advocates are preparing a dossier of the lead industry's activities over a century.

Meanwhile, two other bills targeting lead poisoning had hearings in the House Environment and Transportation Committee this week.

Del. Robbyn Lewis, of Southeast Baltimore, is the lead sponsor of the Maryland Healthy Children Act, which would require the Maryland Department of the Environment to adopt regulations for conducting environmental investigations to determine where lead hazards exist — after a child tests positive — and include the results of any environmental investigation in its annual report on statewide childhood blood lead testing.

Lewis’ bill would force investigators to determine whether the lead poisoning stems from the child’s house or elsewhere to warn others to the danger.

“Its purpose is to urge quicker and more thorough action when children are found to be exposed even at a low level,” Lewis said. She said children across the state continue to be poisoned, even though the problem is most severe in Baltimore. “It’s not a Baltimore problem. It’s a Maryland problem.”

A Chevy Chase company that made millions of dollars from deals with victims of lead poisoning targeted an “entire generation of youth coming of age in Baltimore” with its deceptive practices, Maryland’s top law enforcement official alleges.

While Baltimore has the most children suffering from lead poisoning, other jurisdictions are not immune. In 2017, Prince George’s County had more than 300 kids test positive for elevated lead levels, while Baltimore County had more than 200 positive tests.

If passed, Lewis’ legislation would cost the state more than $1 million per year, according to a fiscal note.

Additionally, Sen. Cory McCray of East Baltimore has teamed up with Montgomery County Del. Jared Solomon to sponsor legislation that would toughen restrictions on the amount of lead permitted in the water of school drinking fountains.

The bill would lower the amount of lead considered acceptable in drinking fountain water to the lowest detectable amount and establishes a state program to provide grants to local school systems to assist with replacing their pipes and water fountains. The annual fiscal impact of the bill is more than $1.7 million.

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In the course of two years, the Baltimore Health Department wasted $170,000 it raised by fining landlords for lead paint violations and charging attorneys to access records for lead lawsuits, an investigation by the city’s inspector general found.

State tests this year found elevated levels of lead in water from 519 school drinking water fountains or sinks across the state, including 229 in Montgomery County; 67 in St. Mary’s County; 58 in Anne Arundel County; 55 in Baltimore County; and 48 in Howard County.

The majority of schools in the Baltimore city have relied on bottled water for a decade, following revelations about lead contamination that forced officials to ban children from drinking out of water fountains or sinks.

“There is no safe level of lead,” Solomon said. “We know if that was our children drinking that water … we wouldn’t want them drinking it.”

Solomon said lawmakers are working to come up with funding for grants to remediate the lead in school water.

“We know one way or another, with lead we’ll either pay for it now or pay for it later,” he said.

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