When Aisha Lindsey began vomiting violently last April, her mother knew that the paint chips she had eaten contained too much lead.
The two-year-old was rushed to Children's Hospital and for the next five days doctors injected her little muscles with chemicals that burned her skin, trying to reduce the lead poinsoning that had wracked her body.
More than 10 years after the dangers of eating lead-based paint were publicized, some 400 children in the District suffered "lead paint toxicity" in the past year. Nearly 15 percent of those cases -- like Aisha's -- showed up in the city's own public housing projects.
While the housing department has vigorously gone after private landlords whose apartments were found to have lead-based paint, the department's public housing arm has been lax in taking care of its own units.
Aisha's case, for instance, might have been prevented because city officials had found two other lead-poisoning cases in Stanton Dwellings, the project in Southeast Washington where she lived, at least a month before she first became ill, but did not warn residents or check other apartments in the project.
A month before Aisha became sick enough to be hospitalized, housing inspectors had notified high-ranking public housing officials that there were large amounts of lead-based paint in her family's apartment. But it was not removed and, four weeks later, she became seriously ill. Work on the apartment, city records show, was only begun the day she was released from the hospital.
Interior paint containing large amounts of lead has not been on the market since legislation was passed by Congress nine years ago, restricting the amount of lead that it can contain.
But the danger remains, especially in buildings constructed before 1955, the year that several paint companies voluntarily lowered the lead levels of their products. Most of the District's 9,000 public housing units for families were built before that time.
Even when lead-based paint is covered with lead-free paint, the lead may leach through, according to the head of the city's lead paint screening probram. And children usually love the sweet taste of the paint chips that can blind them, cause permanent brain damage -- or even kill them.
Aisha's case is not unusual. Five other public housing apartments have been cited since January, because children who live in them have elevated lead levels. But only one of the apartments has been redone completely since that time.
The housing department's inspectors have become so concerned over the delays that they have begun writing top public housing officials, asking that action be taken.
"It's very frustrating for the inspectors to go to our [public housing] and not be able to get it done in a reasonable time," said one high-ranking official in housing inspection. "We keep the guys going although we don't know when it will get done."
Public housing administrator Sidney Glee said he was unaware that so many of the units had not been fixed and called the news "the most disturbing that has come to my attention lately."
He said that he had not seen the letters from the housing inspectors noting the problems because they are automatically sent to others on his staff.
Glee said that ideally, he would like to have housing inspectors survey all 12,000 public housing units to find out exactly how many apartments need to be redone. But he said the cost of removing the paint and repainting them "could be astronomical."
The District asked the Congress to include $800,000 on its supplemental appropriation for the fiscal 1979 budget to help solve the problem, but it was denied. This year's $600,000 was not touched in the first part of the year and has now been frozen because of the city's budget for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 would cut that amount to $400,000.
Glee said that in the future he would require project managers to move families within five days of receiving lead violation notices, so that the paint can be burned off and the apartments repainted quickly.
"I feel that I have been treated very wrong (by the city)," Claudia Ashton, Aisha's 28-year-old mother, said. "I've always paid my rent on time and they have no reason to treat me like they are now."
When the family's apartment at 3174 15th Pl. SE had not been redone by the time Aisha got out of the hospital, Ashton had to look for a place to stay. The project's acting resident manager offered her an apartment up several flights of stairs, but since Ashton has a medical problem, she said she couldn't take it. The manager said there was no other apartment available, so Ashton and her three children were forced to travel around the city for two weeks, spending each night with a different group of friends and one whole week in Ashton's boyfriend's car. Her mother finally took them in, even though she risked eviction herself for overcrowding.
Ashton was told she could return to her apartment, but she said she "refused to bring my children in there because the walls werr full of soot and burn marks." Two weeks later, inspectors gave the project's manager another list of violations, including dirty walls and peeling paint. That work took another two weeks to complete.