Lead Paint Leaves Tragic Legacy in Baltimore

by: Deborah Bailey Special to the AFRO
/ (Photo by Deborah Bailey) /
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Airborne lead dust from abandoned housing, like this one in Baltimore’s Sandtown-Winchester area, poses danger to children and adults. (Photo by Deborah Bailey)

In Flint – it’s in the water. In Baltimore –it’s in the walls.  The lead paint legacy of Baltimore’s poor and predominately Black neighborhoods is a long and tragic story unfolding in plain sight before our eyes.

“Every single poor child who lives in a rental property in Baltimore is getting a much higher lead exposure than the children in Flint” said Saul Kerpelman, a Baltimore attorney who has exclusively handled lead paint poising cases for the past 30 years.

194 children in Baltimore tested positive for lead poisoning in 2014 and have lead blood levels in excess of 10 micrograms per deciliter, a damaging amount, according to the most recent data from the Maryland Department of the Environment.  Almost all of the 194 reported cases represent new reports, meaning new families have either stepped forward to be tested or are now testing with toxic lead levels. African-American children represent the overwhelming majority of child lead poisoning cases in Baltimore.

Since 2012, the Center for Disease Control has determined that no level of lead in the blood is safe.  Before 2012, blood levels below 5 micrograms per deciliter were considered non-toxic. It is now known that even microscopic levels of lead can poison children, especially those below the age of six, according to the CDC.

Chips from crumbling paint in windows, doors and peeling walls of older homes can cause lead poisoning.  But toxic lead can also be breathed in from dust – even that which lingers in the air for days and months after abatement efforts or the mass demolition planned through Governor Larry Hogan’s $700 million removal of old, abandoned housing in Baltimore – much of them lined with lead paint.   The use of interior lead paint was banned in the US in 1978.

“The US has known about the dangers of lead paint long before 1978,” said Kerpelman.  “Baltimore has been one of the most aggressive cities in monitoring lead paint exposure – but we’re also known for our share of problems with this issue” Kerpelman stated.

As early as 1899, Sherwin-William’s internal research unit warned company insiders against the dangers of lead paint.  By the early 20th century, leading lead paint manufactures such as Dupont and Sherwin Williams, knew ingesting chips from lead-based paint caused lead poisoning in children, according to the book “Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children.”   A number of European countries, including Sweden, France, Belgium, Poland, Austria and others soon banned the use of interior lead paint in the 1920’s and 1930’s concurrent with an international ban on lead-based paint sponsored in 1922 by the League of Nations.

As early as the 1940’s, Baltimore City Health Commissioner Huntington Williams partnered with the Johns Hopkins Urban Health Institute, to conduct evaluations on homes of children suffering from lead poisoning.   Baltimore was one of the first cities in the US to ban lead-based paint in the construction of new homes in 1950 and the first city to offer free blood-lead testing.

Shortly after 1978, when lead-based paint was banned in the US, Federal Government officials started reaching a consensus that something had to be done to remove lead from older homes.  The Department of Health and Human Resources developed a multi-billion-dollar plan in 1990 to remove lead-based paint from American homes, but the effort was shelved.

Instead, the US Environmental Protection Agency, commissioned The Kennedy-Krieger Institute, an affiliate of Johns Hopkins University, to conduct the Lead-Based Paint Abatement and Repair and Maintenance Study,  controversial research involving children in 108 African-American households to investigate “low-cost partial lead abatement procedures to prevent lead poisoning in children living in inner-city Baltimore” according to David Buchanan and Franklin Miller, authors of a review article on the troubled study.

Although most of the study children’s lead levels decreased or remained constant, several participants  ended the study with elevated blood-lead levels.  Two parents who enrolled their children in the Study later sued Kennedy -Krieger indicating, “they were not fully informed of the risks of participation for their children and Kennedy-Krieger failed to inform them in a timely manner of test results.” Buchanan and Miller wrote in their review.

The Maryland Court of Appeals overturned a lower court’s initial ruling to dismiss the case and reinstated the families’ lawsuits. In August 2001, the court issued an impassioned 96-page ruling questioning the basic ethics of the Kennedy-Krieger study and drawing parallels with the latent racial discrimination involved in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study.

In 2011, a class action lawsuit was filed against the Kennedy-Krieger Institute alleging that researchers “used those children as known guinea pigs in lead-contaminated houses to complete the study” according to court documents.  Some of the Kennedy-Krieger cases have been settled while others are still in litigation.

Johns Hopkins University Hospital was contacted for comment on this story but did not provide a response.

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