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Baltimore’s Lead Problem

Staff Writer

Will Kirsch ‘18

· Will Kirsch

Lead poisoning has long been a pervasive problem in Baltimore city. Luke Broadwater of the Baltimore Sun reported that city health officials were aware of the problem as far back as the 1950s. These officials’ voices fell on deaf ears, as the lead paint industry willingly ignored the perils of their product. Now more than sixty years later, Baltimore is a different city. The problem of lead, however, has stood the test of time.

No recent event in Baltimore has left as much of an impression on the city as the death of Freddie Gray. Interestingly, before his death, Gray was receiving payment as part of lead-poisoning settlement due to the poisoning he suffered during his childhood in his family’s Sandtown-Winchester home. Gray’s case was hardly unique; in February of 2015, WBAL reported than 56,000 Baltimore children could be at risk of lead poisoning. The problem exists to such an extent that those affected by lead as children have become known as, “lead babies.”

Lead paint has been banned in Baltimore since 1950, yet the problem remains pervasive. While the city and the state have laws in place to prevent lead poisoning, they have proven to not be wholly effective. In 2015, Governor Larry Hogan’s administration passed a law called the Lead Testing Targeting Plan for Childhood Lead, which instituted universal testing for children between the ages of one and two. However, a March 2016 report by NPR stated that such testing has flaws and that some poisoned children are unaware of their affliction. Despite these initiatives’ shortcomings, over the years they have had a substantial effect—lowering cases of lead poisoning by eighty-six percent since 2002. However, the risk of lead poisoning remains a threat to Baltimore’s poor.

The push for legislation to protect Marylanders has continued, as the Maryland Lead Poisoning Recovery Act made it to floor of the Maryland State Senate in early 2016. The bill, which would have allowed victims of lead poisoning to sue lead paint manufacturers, was quickly dropped only a month after its proposal. Still, litigation does not guarantee justice; the Baltimore Sun reported that in August of 2016, a $1.3 million settlement paid to the family of Chauncey Liles Jr. was at risk. The company that insured the Liles’ home was attempting to back out of its contracts with small landlords.

In addition to the difficulties of compensating victims, identifying sources of lead poisoning remains problematic. Some landlords fail to meet the requirement of registering rental properties, which may contain lead paint. Also, the limited number of state inspectors makes it difficult to examine every property. As a result, dangerous environments go unnoticed. To that effect, the Baltimore Sun reported in December of 2016 that 37,500 Baltimore children have been afflicted with lead poisoning since the 1990s.

Baltimore is a city of unique beauty and eclectic culture but, arguably, its problems have garnered it the most fame. Crime, police brutality, drugs, and unemployment all haunt this rust-belt city. However, the threat of lead poisoning has a broad influence that could play a role in the development of all these other problems. Lead poisoning in children is known to negatively affect school performance; it weakens a child’s IQ and creates learning deficiencies that prevent them from functioning well in the school environment. It seems likely that such problems deprive impoverished Baltimore children from the education they are entitled too. With their learning ability crippled by a health problem beyond their control, how can one hold an individual responsible for their failure to perform in school? Education is an integral part of eliminating social problems, but as long as lead is affecting the minds of children, how can one hope to see change? To be sure, this is far from the only problem faced by city schools but it is one that can be relatively easily addressed.

Baltimore City has taken great steps during the past several decades to reduce the presence of lead paint in homes and to cut back on the effect of lead poisoning on people. However, the fact that lead poisoning remains a problem shows that not enough has been done. One of the essential roles of government is to protect the health of the public. In the case of lead poisoning, aggressive action in defense of health could potentially have an advantageous effect on all the city’s other issues. Baltimore is infected and it has left itself no choice but to be aggressive about finding a cure.

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