Gov. Parris N. Glendening yesterday announced a stepped-up initiative to protect children from lead poisoning, as he acknowledged that Maryland has failed to adequately enforce laws in the past.
Flanked by Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (D) and the head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the governor outlined plans to dedicate more than $50 million in local, state and federal money to clean or demolish lead-infested homes and fund the prosecution of landlords who are failing to adhere to Maryland's lead-paint laws.
"I don't want to mince words," Glendening (D) said. "Our children are suffering."
The announcement came as two Baltimore lawmakers said they would introduce a bill to make it easier for lead-poisoning victims to sue paint companies.
The market-share liability measure, being drafted by Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D) and Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman (D), would force companies to pay settlements in poisoning liability lawsuits based on how much paint they sold in Maryland.
Lead poisoning can occur when children or pregnant women absorb high levels of the substance into the bloodstream after inhaling or swallowing dust from lead-based paints.
A child suffering from lead exposure can experience a range of debilitating problems, including learning disabilities, stunted growth, hyperactivity, hearing impairment and irreversible brain and nerve damage.
A 1998 statewide study of lead levels in children younger than 6 found that the problem was most severe in Baltimore, where 22 percent of those tested showed elevated levels in their bloodstreams. In all, 669 children, or 4 percent of those tested, had levels indicating they had been poisoned.
The problem was less severe in suburban Washington. In Montgomery, Prince George's and Howard counties, fewer than 2 percent of children younger than 6 had elevated levels of lead in their blood.
Yesterday's announcement followed a recent series of articles in the Baltimore Sun that chronicled lead-poisoning cases in that city's poorest neighborhoods and described a general lack of action by government agencies to address the problem.
Glendening said about $15.8 million of the $50 million for the initiative constitutes new state aid for the three-year period. Maryland and the federal government already plan to spend about $16.8 million for the period, with Baltimore kicking in about $18 million.
The EPA also is spending $286,000 in the District and $257,900 in Virginia to eradicate lead-paint hazards.
EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner promised additional money for Maryland for the inspection of 10,000 houses and an advertising blitz to help raise awareness of the threat.
For O'Malley, the lead-poisoning problem has been one of the first major issues to confront his administration since he took office in December, and he has promised an immediate response.
"The urgency that really should attend to this lead problem has not been there. But we have woken up. Today is a new day," O'Malley said.