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The issue of lead poisoning in this country has come into focus again because of the water crisis in Flint, Mich. But by far, the biggest risk of lead poisoning to children is from paint. Despite decades of effort, hundreds of thousands of children are still poisoned every year. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports from Baltimore.
JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: In the kitchen of a 1930s rowhouse, environmental assessor Hector Moreno is finding hazardous lead paint everywhere.
HECTOR MORENO: Look here on the door, the patterns of the chipping paint. So all this is going to be removed.
LUDDEN: The chipping looks like alligator scales - same on the Windows. In the basement, water pools around a toilet. There's a leak in a bedroom wall. This moisture breaks down paint.
Moreno's with Green and Healthy Homes Initiative. It's been contracted by the city to repair and replace all this. That's because the 1-year-old girl who lives here was found to have a dangerously high level of lead.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We'll go over a list of foods for you to feed the child.
LUDDEN: Moreno's colleague gives the mother tips on food to counter the lead and a special vacuum for lead dust. But it's been six months since the lead test. Kenicer Carty hopes her daughter won't suffer the behavior or learning problems lead can cause. Up to now, she hasn't told anyone about the poisoning.
KENICER CARTY: It's because I don't want people to judge, you know? We live in a society where your labeled for just the simplest thing.
LUDDEN: Baltimore banned lead paint in 1950, decades before the rest of the country. It's seen a dramatic decline in the number of children with lead poisoning. But Ruth Ann Norton, the head of Green and Healthy Homes, says, like everywhere, it's taken too long to accept that any level of lead is harmful.
RUTH ANN NORTON: For decades, we were telling families kids who had levels of two, three, four, five, nine that they were really safe. That was the message. And we knew they weren't safe.
LEANA WEN: We have actually lowered our threshold for intervention from 10 micrograms per deciliter to 5 micrograms per deciliter ahead of state guideline.
LUDDEN: Leana Wen is Baltimore's health commissioner. She says the city also has universal lead testing, though that's a challenge to carry out.
WEN: A primary care doctor may recommend that the child is tested. However, by the time that a parent goes to a lab and then gets that report back, some kids may fall through the cracks during that time.
LUDDEN: Wen wants funding for instant testing in doctors' offices. Maryland's governor says the state will also begin testing all children for lead. Advocate Norton says that's great, but it's not a solution.
NORTON: There's only one cure for lead poisoning, for the irreversible high cost and impact of lead poisoning, and that's prevention.
BEN GRUMBLES: Well, the good news is that Maryland has been very aggressive.
LUDDEN: Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles says a housing registry certifies which rental units are lead-safe. And if tenants see a problem...
GRUMBLES: They have the right to notify their landlord under Maryland law if they see chipping, peeling or flaking paint and to get the landlord to fix that.
LUDDEN: But extensive reporting by the Baltimore Sun finds landlords don't always fix it. And state auditors say the registry of hundreds of thousands of homes is riddled with errors. What's more, landlords only have to act after a child has a lead level of 10. They opposed recent legislation to lower that. Thomas Tompsett is with the Maryland Multi-Housing Association.
THOMAS TOMPSETT: Unfortunately, the more we are sued and the more risk reductions we have to do - all those costs, unfortunately, is passed on to the tenant in most cases.
BRIAN BROWN: There should be a program initiated to remove lead from every home in the country.
LUDDEN: Attorney Brian Brown sues landlords on behalf of children. He says the federal government has never fully funded lead poisoning prevention.
BROWN: There's no doubt in my mind that if rich, white kids were the ones being poisoned by lead, this problem would've been solved to 75 years ago.
LUDDEN: Advocate Ruth Ann Norton says studies show a large-scale investment would more than pay off from education to criminal justice.
NORTON: The kids will read better. They're going to be less likely to be violent. They will live healthier. Why wouldn't we do it.
LUDDEN: She's pushing for a national task force to take up that question. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.
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