ANNAPOLIS – Sherry Fowlkes took her daughter Aijee to a routine checkup in January, only to discover that the baby had an alarming level of lead in her blood.
Fowlkes, 19, of Baltimore, had moved months before because of hazards posed by the lead-based paint on her apartment walls – – hazards that may have affected her then-unborn baby. Though the child is alert and boisterous at one-and-a-half, some experts believe eventual damage may include learning disabilities and vision problems.
The Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, passed in 1995 to deal with this widespread problem, did not take effect until late February. But the Maryland Legislature is examining several new lead protection bills, including some to substantially alter the program.
Some landlords complain of being burdened with unneeded, expensive work. Some question whether ingestion of lead is really as dangerous as it’s made out to be. Finally, they question whether a statewide law is appropriate.
Dick Hudson, representing Frederick County property owners, called the program “overkill,” adding that the legislation should target urban areas.
Indeed, one bill would concentrate a lead screening program for children in higher-risk areas. Maryland Department of the Environment statistics show that lead poisoning is much higher in metropolitan areas, including Baltimore and Prince George’s County.
Other property owners complain that the present laws means costs in the thousands — even hundreds of thousands in some cases — to safely scrape lead from buildings that they claim are already safe.
Mark Moshier, representing Gates Hudson Associates, a company in Fairfax, Va., noted that without program modifications, many landlords will deal with enormous costs at the expense of other services to tenants.
But Ruthann Norton, executive director of Baltimore’s Coalition for a Lead-Safe Environment, condemned efforts to curb the new protections.
“They’re trying to gut the [program] before it even has a chance to work,” Norton said.
One bill would allow a landlord not to disclose the presence of lead to the Environment Department.
Another would exempt pregnant women from protections, even though children like Aijee Fowlkes may have been exposed while in the womb.
In a letter to the House Environmental Matters Committee, Dr. Julian Chisolm, a physician with Baltimore’s Kennedy Krieger Institute, said that lead can pass through the placenta into the womb so that the “blood-lead concentration in mother and newborn infant are nearly identical.”
Most arguments saying that lower concentrations of lead are not dangerous are based on anecdotal evidence, Chisolm said.
“When you’re dealing with a whole population, there are some cases where there won’t be any effects,” he said.
Chisolm noted, however, that learning disabilities can just as likely be the result of poor education in a poverty-ridden environment, and blood-lead levels can be just one factor.
Universities and public agencies nationwide have determined that excessive blood-lead levels can cause neurological damage in children.
But there is debate about what constitutes a dangerous level of lead. In 1991, the Centers for Disease Control lowered the acceptable range to 10 to 25 micrograms per deciliter of blood, which substantially increased the number of children considered to be at risk.
“I’m disgusted, basically, with the way we’ve not dealt with this problem,” said Dr. Barbara Sattler, assistant professor of toxicology at the University of Maryland Medical School, who directs the EPA’s Maryland Regional Lead Training Center.
Sattler noted that only a handful of the state’s approximately 11,000 contractors have signed up for courses the center provides in how to deal with the lead paint problem.
But those who have been trained are “not necessarily people who are out there in the community delivering services,” Sattler said. “If you want to find a contractor who has been certified by the state to do lead-safe work, you’d be hard pressed.”
Sattler maintained that this is not merely an inner city problem involving low-income housing.
Many contractors are reluctant to become certified to cleanse houses of lead residue because of the high cost of insurance, Sattler said.
Among the measures now before the General Assembly is one exempting landlords from removing lead-based paint from the outside of a building if the paint is not chipped or peeling.
Though exterior lead-based paint can eventually chip off and find its way into the soil, it may not pose a serious risk unless “a kid is out there eating dirt,” said Mark Francek, a geology professor at Central Michigan University.
Another measure would exempt housing for people over 55 from the strict lead-free standards.
Chisolm said that exemption could be harmful: “A great number of these children are taken care of by grandmothers and great aunts, and very often they are the legal guardians.” Aijee Fowlkes had a blood-lead concentration of 12.9 micrograms, just above the CDC’s threshold for a dangerous level. -30-