WASHINGTON – Although Maryland prides itself on thorough lead risk and reduction regulations, some advocates are calling on the state to boost spending on those programs and improve enforcement.
The Environmental Protection Agency announced a new lead training and prevention effort on Sept. 27 in 11 communities in 9 states and Puerto Rico. The EPA will train contractors in lead renovation, repair and painting and hold sessions for local officials to educate their own areas on lead exposure and prevention.
Maryland was not included in the EPA initiative –– a decision that did not sit well with Maryland Sen. Jill Carter, D-Baltimore, where some communities have been plagued with lead paint issues for years.
“I would hope that we would be included in any and all initiatives because it’s been a scourge and the most widespread environmental hazard on Maryland’s children that exists,” Carter told Capital News Service. “There’s an opportunity for people that are in poor neighborhoods, not only to make money, but to find jobs in this, and so we need all of those resources, especially post-pandemic, that we can get.”
The senator is a member of the Lead Poisoning Prevention Commission inside the state Department of the Environment. The commission evaluates the effectiveness of the state’s lead reduction efforts.
“To our knowledge this was not a grant program where the state had an opportunity to apply for consideration,” said Jay Apperson, deputy director of the department’s communications office.
The department’s efforts to reduce childhood lead poisoning and enforce Maryland’s lead law have continued over the COVID-19 pandemic and have expanded under the Maryland Healthy Children Act, according to Apperson.
Under the act, Apperson said environmental investigations now include diagnoses at or above the CDC’s blood lead reference level of 5 micrograms per deciliter, compared to the previous threshold level of 10 or more micrograms per deciliter.
“This allows (the department) to reach a new population and represents an important opportunity for the department for early intervention and to evaluate and address any noncompliance with state lead laws applicable to owners of pre-1978 residential rental properties,” Apperson said.
The national strategy for lead poisoning reduction and prevention has three main parts, according to Dr. David Jacobs, research director and chief scientist at the National Center for Healthy Housing, a nonprofit organization based in Columbia, Maryland.
First, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks the number of children and adults poisoned with lead.
Then, the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development provides funding for low-income, privately-owned homes.
And, third, the EPA sets exposure standards, trains individuals and communities and ensures that workers have the proper certifications and licenses.
“The accredited training standards in Maryland far exceed the EPA (lead mitigation) standard,” said Ruth Ann Norton, president and CEO of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, a Baltimore-based national nonprofit dedicated to improving housing conditions.
Norton said she was not surprised that Maryland was not part of the EPA’s new initiative.
“The work that the EPA is doing is extending and spreading out the efforts around that training throughout the country, so they’re building additional capacity around the country,” Norton said.
Just over 0.2 percent of children in Maryland had elevated levels of lead in their blood (at 10 or more micrograms per deciliter) in 2019 –– a 99 percent decrease since the earliest data recorded in 1993, according to a report from the Maryland Department of the Environment.
“All of this is improving now in 2021 from what it was a decade ago and two decades ago, but until we have no lead-poisoned children, we just haven’t done enough,” Carter said.
Lead, a metal that serves no useful biological function, can poison children and cause long-term behavioral and developmental problems.
“That early, early lead poisoning has irreparable damage to cognitive development, (including) reading (and) reasoning abilities,” Norton said. “Then from there, it’s just collateral damage on kidneys, on (the) heart and on long-term health.”
Although lead poisoning has a range of sources, the majority of cases originate in lead-based paint, according to Norton. Older homes typically have higher lead levels compared to newer dwellings.
In 1978, the federal government banned lead as an ingredient in paint used in residential structures.
Under Maryland’s Reduction of Lead Risk in Housing Law, rental property owners must register rental properties built before 1978 through the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Rental owners also have to distribute educational resources on lead poisoning to their tenants and meet lead-paint risk reduction standards.
But the law excludes pre-1978 homes, which leaves a number of lead-ridden places in Maryland uninspected.
“There still remains a large number of older houses in Maryland that still have lead paint hazards,” Jacobs said.
Maryland also requires universal blood tests for lead in children in order to catch higher levels as early as possible.
Regardless of testing, medical professionals cannot reverse any elevated lead levels.
“If you poison a kid with lead at the age of two, you can spend millions of dollars in social service dollars for the rest of their lifetime, but you will not reverse the brain damage,” Norton said.
Norton and other advocates urged Maryland to provide more funding and enforcement of the lead laws.
“We know exactly how to identify lead hazards, we know how to fix them, and we know what it costs, and we need to be able to have the funding to do that work,” Norton said.
Carter said paint companies should be held financially responsible for poisoning children with lead in Maryland and thinks this would offer the best source of funding for current lead laws.
Carter said Maryland should hire more lead inspectors and to make sure they have integrity in their inspections, pointing to previous ties with property owner organizations and slumlords.
Maryland is no stranger to the irreversible impacts of lead poisoning in children.
“It’s been a culture in Baltimore that slumlords have capitalized off of poor people who can’t afford safe housing and have no choice except to live in this dilapidated, substandard, toxic-lead housing stock,” Carter said.
Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old Black man who died in 2015 at the hands of Baltimore law enforcement, had elevated levels of lead in his blood.
At the age of three, Gray’s blood lead levels hit close to 10 times over what the CDC contemplates will soon be the new threshold level, according to Norton.
“I think what has to be deeply understood is: Freddie Gray represents tens and tens of thousands of children that have come through Maryland with similar experiences,” Norton said.
Gray’s elevated blood levels speak to the disproportionate rates of lead poisoning in low-income communities and in communities of color.
Carter also said there is a link between Black youth in the juvenile justice system and elevated levels of lead in their blood.
“And so, police reform, juvenile justice reform, lead abatement –– all of that goes hand-in-hand,” Carter said. “Any society that’s really committed to racial reckoning and equity has to address this issue.”