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Baltimore takes a holistic approach to unhealthy housing

A'Niah Williams, 2, has suffered lead poisoning, asthma attacks and bedbug bites in substandard housing.
A'Niah Williams, 2, has suffered lead poisoning, asthma attacks and bedbug bites in substandard housing. (Evy Mages For The Washington Post)

The Health Department has seen a 50-fold increase in the number of bedbug calls since 2004, and beginning in 2009, it added bedbug abatement to its Healthy Homes program. The city is now running the first subsidized pest-control model for low-income families in the country.

"Bedbugs are an issue we haven't really dealt with as a society for a while, and we have to reframe it as a public health issue," Kasameyer said. "People don't know what it is and don't know how to fix it anymore."

The D.C. Department of Health started tracking bedbug calls on Jan. 1, 2009, and recorded 182 calls last year. In contrast to the coordinated Healthy Homes approach, Washington's bedbugs and rodents are handled by the Department of Health; lead, fire safety, indoor air pollution, and some asthma services fall under the Department of the Environment; and the National Capital Asthma Coalition provides in-home asthma education and management services for low-income D.C. residents.

According to Brown of the CDC, about 100 cities around the country are beginning to move toward a coordinated Healthy Homes approach, but Washington is not among them.

"I think the city still needs to get very squared away with lead before they take on any new challenges," Brown said.

Today, Taylor says her family's health is more stable than it has been in the last two years, and A'Niah's asthma is relatively under control. Each week, a behavioral specialist from the Kennedy Krieger Institute works with Taylor and A'Niah to manage the child's aggression and hyperactivity. A'Niah has not been to the emergency room for her asthma in four months.


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