Anna Maria Barry-Jester: Baltimore’s Toxic Legacy Of Lead Paint


State tests found more than 65,000 children in the city with dangerously high blood-lead levels from 1993 to 2013. Across the United States, more than half a million kids are poisoned by lead each year, and the majority come from cities like Baltimore: rust belt towns built up during the first half of the 20th century when leaded paint was dominant. As populations and employment opportunities shrank in recent decades, poverty and neglect combined with older housing allowed lead paint poisoning to plague the city.

Despite sharp declines, the city of Baltimore still has nearly three times the national rate of lead poisoning among children, and a look at the data reveals that, like other health disparities, just a handful of neighborhoods are responsible for almost all of the city’s cases over the last five years. Sandtown is one of them.

But even these relatively stark statistics hide much of the problem. The data here represents children with blood-lead levels of 10 micrograms per deciliter (ug/dL), while the acceptable limit was halved to 5ug/dL by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2012 after decades of research showed there is no safe threshold for lead exposure. More than a thousand children tested for blood-lead levels between 5 and 9 ug/dL in 2013 in Baltimore, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.

Lead paint can be absorbed through the skin, and even a small amount of dust from frequently used doors and windows is a risk without professional abatement. Exposure to larger, lethal doses of lead is mostly non-existent in the U.S. today, but ingesting even tiny amounts can have lifelong effects, and is particularly dangerous for children under age six. Speech delays, lack of impulse control, aggressive tendencies, ADHD and other learning disabilities have been associated with exposure to lead. While it’s impossible to draw relationships between lead paint and an individual’s behavior, what happens when a population is exposed to lead is pretty clear, and it’s not pretty.