Last year, the National Zoological Park spent $250,000 to eliminate the lead paint hazard in its monkey cages. At about the same time, the D.C. City Council committee refused to act on legislation that would have mandated that similar steps be taken to provide lead-safe environments in public elementary schools and city-owned housing units.
Frederick C. GreeN, associate director of Children's Hospital and a member of the Committee for Lead Elimination Action in the District of Columbia didn't like that. He said the city was continuing, by the committee's inaction, to exempt itself from the same requirements imposed on others through the D.C. housing code, which does not apply to city-owned buildings and other legialation.
"Landlords are removing lead-based paint. Homeowners are removing lead-based paint. And private day-care centers are removing lead-based paint. What about the D.C. government?" Green asked at a recent City Council hearing. "The attitude of the D.C. government to date has been, 'Do as I say, not as I do.'"
Last week the Council took the first step toward getting rid of lead paint hazards in city-owned buildings by approving a $1.1 million lead elimination program.
The bill requires that all city buildings and city-owned residences be inspected to determine if there are hazardous lead levels. If such levels exist, the legislation mandates, the hazards must be removed within two weeks.
Lead-based paint poses a health problem in buildings because children who continually absord it - most often through persistent nibbling on chips of lead-based paint - can contract lead poisoning, which can lead to hyperactivity, brain damage and death.
There have been no recent deaths reported in the city as a result of lead poisoning. However, one of every seven children examined by the D.C. department of human resources in the past five years has been diagnosed as having high-risk levels of lead in their body. Of those seven thousand high risk children, about one of every seven has been found to have a level of lead content high enough to possibly cause ill effects.
Lead poison researchers have been unable to directly trace the source of the lead ingestion to city-owned buildings. However, in testimony before the Council's government operations committee recently, a strong indirect blame was placed on the city as the biggest lead paint poisoner in the District.
Nearly one of every four children screened by DHR last year had elevated (or dangerous) lead levels. Yet of the 3.000 with the elevated levels, in only one-third of the cases was the o source of lead traced to private dwellings. "This," Green asserted, "highlights the need for the city to widen its inspection and abatement procedures."
One major source of possible lead paint poisoning is believed to be some of the 122 public schools in the city that were built before 1950, before the time when paints with lower lead content were in common use. (Latex is the only lead-free paint, Green says,and it is sometimes not preferred because of its lower durability).
Thirty-two of those schools were inspected last year and in seven - nearly one of every four - the lead level was considered hazardous. The lead content hazards in four of the seven had still not been removed as of April.
Of the 12,000 public housing units in the city, 2391 were built prior to 1950. More than 500 of the latter group are suspected of having hazardous lead levels.
Council member Arrington Dixon (D-Ward four), chairman of the government operations committee, said much of the delay last year was over uncertain projections on how much de-leading might cost.