Eight months ago, city inspectors came to Darlene Newson's apartment in the Kelly Miller public housing development on V Street NW and ran tests. They found a high lead content in the peeling paint on her bedroom ceiling. Under a city lead-abatement program, the unit was slated for repairs.
One day last week, Newson's 3-year-old son Kenny was napping beneath the peeling paint. Nothing had been done since last year's inspection.
"When Kenny was little he picked the paint up and ate it, but I had him checked and he was all right," Newson said. "I've been complaining about the peeling since I moved in three or four years ago. Last year, a man came out and tested it, and he said somebody would come out and fix it. . . . I keep scraping it down, but it keeps peeling."
The case illustrates the slow progress of the District government's program to abate lead-based-paint problems in the city's public housing units, particularly in the 10 housing projects built before 1950, when the paint was used extensively.
According to figures from the city's Office of Intergovernmental Relations, since the program was begun in the 1981 fiscal year, 389 units have been repaired, leaving an estimated 837 apartments that still require work on their interior walls and surfaces.
In addition, say city officials, for the past two years the program has not been funded at recommended levels. Sources familiar with the program say current funding allows work on about six apartments a week. No deadline was set for completion of the program.
"Given the resources available, we're pleased with our progress," said Tom Butler, program manager for the housing inspection division of the city's housing department, in a statement released by the intergovernmental relations office.
Butler said there is currently a backlog of 800 paint samples to be tested. "The Department of General Services has one chemist, so basically, the process of lab analysis is slower than we would like," he said. "We're trying to get an interdepartmental agreement for another chemist, and we're interested in getting interns from UDC the University of the District of Columbia to help with lab work."
Chips of peeling paint are frequently picked up and eaten by small children who like the paint's sweet taste. The lead in the paint accumulates in their blood--especially in children with poor nutrition--and causes a wide range of problems, from intestinal cramps and dysentery to headaches and eventual learning impairment.
A total of 173 children in the District were found to have symptoms of lead toxicity in 1982, one of the lowest rates in the nation. Officials credit the abatement program, along with greater parent awareness.
At the Kelly Miller development, for example, a few doors away from Newson's apartment, Cristina Hugee's kitchen is newly paneled and painted, repaired by housing officials last year after they found peeling high-lead paint there.
But advocacy groups such as the Committee for Lead Elimination in the District of Columbia say that 173 cases of lead toxicity are 173 too many and emphasize that vigilance is needed to keep toxicity rates from climbing again.
In the current fiscal year, Mayor Marion Barry requested that the program's funding of $400,000 be cut in half as a cost-cutting measure, according to Betsy Reveal, Barry's budget director. The City Council restored $100,000, raising the total funding level to $300,000.
For the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, Barry again requested that $400,000 in available funding be halved. "This will delay the program to remove lead-based paint from District-owned buildings frequented by children," the mayor's budget summary stated.
The council restored $200,000, meaning that if this portion of the city's budget survives congressional review intact, the program will have its full funding.
The City Council passed the Public Property Lead Elimination Act in 1977. It specifies that interior walls and surfaces with hazardous levels of lead--defined as one square millimeter per square centimeter of surface area--must be repaired.
The council today is scheduled to consider a measure that would further reduce the admissible levels of lead in house paint and require landlords to remove lead-based paint from exterior walls in areas children can reach.
Housing officials, under the terms of the 1977 act, began inspecting the pre-1950 housing units three years ago. They say that inspection is now complete for all apartments registered as having children under six years of age in the 10 affected complexes.
But many apartments where small children are living and in which peeling lead-based paint was found have not been repaired. And some apartments that were occupied by families with small children after the inspection have not been checked.
In some cases, public housing tenants do not know whether they have problems with lead-based paint or not--as in the case of Oritha Crawford, who lives at the Carrollsburg Apartments at 319 L St. SW.
Crawford said 4-year-old Russell, one of her four children, became querulous and hyperactive shortly after his second birthday. When she took him to the Southwest Health Center, tests showed unhealthy levels of lead in his blood, she said.
Russell has been receiving medical attention and monthly health checks at D.C. General Hospital, Crawford said, and officials restored the hallway walls and placed a protective box around the living room radiator. But since then, large sections of the living room walls have chipped and peeled.
"When the rains came in the spring, the whole problem of the peeling walls just got worse," she said. "They've lowered my rent four times since I moved in, but they haven't got rid of the problem."
Joyce McRae, a spokesperson for the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs contacted last Friday, said that Crawford's apartment was inspected in May 1981, and repairs on lead-based paint hazard areas were completed by August of that year.
McRae said the department had received no further complaints about the apartment since then, but that an inspector would be sent out to see whether the walls now peeling were painted with high-lead paint.