By ELIZABETH M. PIAZZA
ANNAPOLIS (Dec. 20, 2008)—When the ceiling fell down in her mother's two-story Baltimore home, Towanda Malley never considered the possibility of lead exposure. But on Oct. 13, after a mandatory lead test, her 2-year-old daughter, Paris Shannon, showed elevated levels of lead in her blood.
"I didn't know that lead still existed, that it was still in homes," said Malley, who lives in the house with her three children and her mother, who has lung cancer.
With a statewide goal of eliminating childhood lead poisoning by 2010 nearing, Maryland has made significant progress in decreasing the number of cases among residents in rental property units. But Malley's story is an example of a growing trend of lead poisoning among children who live in owner-occupied housing units, one of the reasons advocates say the state may not meet its 2010 deadline.
"What we have found as we have implemented this law over the past 14 years is that the number of children with elevated blood lead levels has decreased in pre-1950 housing units but has increased in rental units from 1950 - 1978 and also in owner-occupied housing pre-1978," said Alvin Bowles, manager of the lead poisoning prevention program at the Maryland Department of the Environment.
Approximately 58 percent of children who are poisoned live in owner-occupied housing or rental units built between 1950 and 1978, according to Bowles.
In 1994, Maryland enacted the Reduction of Lead Risk in Housing Law, which requires that owners of rental properties that pre-date 1950 must register their units, distribute materials from the Maryland Department of the Environment to inform tenants of the hazards of lead and meet specific lead risk reduction standards.
The law did not include regulations for owner-occupied housing or rental units built between 1950 and 1978.
Nine years ago, when Malley's mother purchased the Garrison Avenue home, which is more than 30 years old, she was told that it was lead free.
Lead remains one of the most significant environmental hazards for children in Maryland. Children from birth to age 6 are at the greatest risk because of their developing neurological systems.
Lead exposure usually occurs with normal hand-to-mouth activity and comes from lead paint dust from chipped paint or home renovations.
Exposure can result in lower intelligence and has been associated with behavior and attention span problems. It can lead to kidney, liver, brain and nerve damage, and at extreme levels can cause seizures, coma or death.
After the exposure, Malley noticed that Paris's eating habits increased and that she had an increase in violent behavior. Everyone in the home began to suffer from headaches.
Maryland is among the states that have made the greatest progress toward decreasing childhood lead poisoning.
In 2006, approximately 1,000 children out of nearly 100,000 tested in Maryland, showed an elevated blood lead level, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control. That number is down from nearly 16,000 children in 1993, according to Ruth Ann Norton, executive director at the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, based in Baltimore.
"We are determined to try and get this down," said Norton. According to Norton, from 1993 to 2007, there was a 94 percent decline in numbers of children with elevated blood lead levels throughout Maryland.
Currently, some properties are visually inspected for chipped paint and other tell-tale signs of the presence of lead. But Norton said the state will have difficulty meeting its 2010 goal unless it adopts a lead dust testing standard that would require more than just a visual inspection of many properties.
Even with the increase in cases among owner-occupied units, Maryland remains a national model because of its strong commitment to enforce violations. The Maryland Department of the Environment ensures compliance with mandatory requirements through the Lead Prevention Program.
In 2008, enforcement actions increased to 871 from 708 in 2006, and approximately $650,000 was paid in fines to the Maryland Department of the Environment. The money helps fund the lead poisoning prevention program.
"Finishing the job is very, very important, but it's a little harder," said Madeleine Shea, assistant commissioner for Healthy Homes. Finding the smaller mom and pop rental properties and owner-occupied units has been a challenge, and often homeowners don't have the funding to fix the problems associated with lead exposure.
Healthy Homes has funds available to help those like Towanda Malley and her mother.
"Neither one of us have the money to do [renovations] right now and it's close to Christmas," Malley said. They are currently waiting to find out if they are eligible to receive funding to complete the renovations.
For now, a plastic sheet covers the hole in the ceiling. Malley and her mother are teaching Paris to keep her hands out of her mouth, as well as following the health department's recommendations on keeping the house clean.
On Dec. 8, after another lead test, Malley was told that Paris's lead level was lower. Her appetite is back to normal and the violent behavior has decreased.
She will continue to be tested until her lead level goes below the acceptable standard, or is eliminated altogether.
The health department is working to relocate Malley and her kids.
"I can't keep having her [Paris] in that situation," Malley said. "But finding somewhere to live right away is kind of hard."
For more information on state and national statistics about lead poisoning, visit www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/ or www.mde.state.md.us/Programs/LandPrograms/LeadCoordination/index.asp.
Capital News Service contributed to this report.