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  April 19, 2017

Lead Poisoning: Baltimore's Forgotten Public Health Crisis (1/2)

On latest episode of The Real Baltimore we host an expert panel on "the most preventable public health threat" facing the city
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Angel King Wilson was lead poisoned as a child. She currently works to inspire the art community in Baltimore City as Director of Cultivate Passion llc. Wilson is also currently pursuing her graduate degree in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts at University of Baltimore.

David Albright is an Attorney with over two decades experience representing victims of lead poisoning

Lawrence Brown is an assistant professor in the School of Community Health and Policy at Morgan State University. Longtime public health advocate

Ruth Ann Norton , one of the nation's leading experts on healthy housing, has served as President & CEO of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative since 1993.

Bill Cunningham Baltimore resident, advocate and member of the Greater Remington Improvement Association

Jill Carter Former longtime State Delegate, she currently serves as the Director of the Mayor's Office of Civil Rights & Wage Enforcement

Zafar Shah is an Attorney at the Public Justice Law Center


KIM BROWN: On behalf of The Real News Network I'd like to welcome you to The Real Baltimore. I'm your host, Kim Brown.

NEWS ANCHOR: Study out today of public health records has discovered 3,000 neighborhoods in America where children suffer from lead poisoning.

JASMINE CARLTON: It's Jeniah. She's four. And this is Jaylin. He's eight. We're both here because my youngest daughter Jeniah hey got lead from the house I was in previously.

NEWS ANCHOR: The study, by the Reuters News Agency, found lead poisoning twice, and even four times higher than what was seen in the recent contaminated water crisis in Flint, Michigan.

JASMINE CARLTON: And it was a high level of lead ... I was hurt because... I already have one child that has lead, and I already knew what she goes through. So, me have a high one lead, it mess it up. Like, it's not a good feeling.

INTERVIEWER: But what impact...?

JASMINE CARLTON: Meaning like what she do? Man, she fights, she yells with no prior reason. She wants her way. She used to bang her head on the wall. I had to get her things by ... twice because of this.

KIM BROWN: The voice you just heard at the top of the program was Jasmine Carlton, a Baltimore resident whose children are among the hundreds who are exposed to toxic levels of lead every year, which begs the question: is lead poisoning a past crisis, rightfully fading into distant memory, or is it a public health epidemic ignored by policy-makers, and the media that demands immediate action?

What most agree on is that there are no safe levels of lead, especially for young children under the age of six, as well as its links to developmental and behavioral issues. Lead poisoning in Baltimore is a tale of two cities. Like many of the city's health indicators, like life expectancy, incarceration, unemployment, as some call it the black butterfly and the white L.

According to Reuters, several neighborhoods in Baltimore have lead levels that exceed Flint, Michigan. Every year hundreds are exposed to dangerous levels of lead, and over the past decade over 200,000 have been exposed to low levels of lead in Baltimore.

In a moment, we'll be joined with a panel of experts, but first, this report.

JAISAL NOOR: To begin exploring this, we started off in the white working class, but rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of Remington, situated by the 83 corridor, and Johns Hopkins University, to speak to long time resident Bill Cunningham.

BILL CUNNINGHAM: Is that if we are in a neighborhood that is not one of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods in the city of Baltimore, that there is a major problem with the fact that lead paint is not being enforced in the state of Maryland.

This is one of the properties that I straight up told them, that it is tenant-occupied, it's not lead paint certified. In the 18 months that I did that, no one from the state has investigated any of the properties that I gave them, which just shows that they don't care. You can't get around the fact that they don't care.

JAISAL NOOR: Rates of lead poisoning have dropped dramatically since the '90s, when tens of thousands of cases were ID'd every year. But exposure continues, mostly to low-income families who have few options.

ZAFAR SHAH: The hardest kind of property to find if you're a low-income renter is the property that will fit you and your kids. There's a scarcity of family-size property, in that the ones you can get at a low rent, are typically substandard. And then the people, who are looking for that housing, typically are already in a cycle of eviction.

They are kicked out through a summary ejectment process; quickly have to find some other housing where they don't have the deposit ready. They are more times than not, jumping from one bad situation to a worse situation. And their options are just so limited, that I think the onus should be on the city, and the landlords, to make sure people aren't faced with that type of difficult choice.

We're not doing enough to give affordable housing to the folks who need it most, the folks with children who are at risk for lead poisoning. So, we need to do more, just to make sure that the housing stock in the rental market is habitable, is safe. That's the promise that we presume under a ...

JAISAL NOOR: Advocates have failed to pass legislation that would increase oversight and penalties, says former veteran state delegate Jill Carter.

JILL CARTER: My frustration in the legislature was largely because, it was so obvious that this was preventable and that the political will had simply never been there to really address the problem. It's a very simple thing. No lead paint. Abate what is there. Don't allow children to come out of the hospital, and 30 days after being brought home permanently brain-damaged, so they will never realize their potential in life.

It's inhumane. Not only is lead the number one precursor for juvenile delinquency, and all kinds of other behavioral problems. It's also, if we were to take a survey of everyone in our juvenile justice system, and in our prisons, we'd find a huge number of these people were lead-poisoned as children.

I've come across so many people as a adults, when I look into what caused their initial dysfunction in life, or initial stumbling, or lack of productivity, or whatever issues happened, it always goes... 99% of the time in Baltimore City it goes back to lead poisoning. So, it is a state of emergency.

JAISAL NOOR: Jasmine Carter and her three young children were relocated to a lead-free home thanks to assistance from the health department and the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative. But she fears the damage, especially to her youngest daughter, will be permanent.

JASMINE CARTER: Oh, yeah, especially hers... 'cause he, I think he can balance it. My oldest daughter, she can balance it. How... her? No. I think this is the one I'm gonna have the most trouble out of. I guess it was because she was so young at the time. ... She was so young at the time when it happened. So, now...

KIM BROWN: For an extended version of that report, and much more, you can check it out at

We're now joined in the studio, by our panel of experts, we're joined today by Angel King-Wilson. She is a Western High School alumna, with degrees in psychology and English from West Virginia Wesleyan College. Angel works to inspire the art community in Baltimore City as director of Cultivate Passion LLC. She is currently pursuing her graduate degree in creative writing, and publishing arts, at the University of Baltimore.

We're also joined today by, David Albright. He is an attorney with over two decades of experience representing victims of lead poisoning.

Lawrence Brown also joins us. He's an assistant professor in the School of Community Health and Policy at Morgan State University. Lawrence is also a long time public health advocate.

And Ruth Anne Norton is one of the nation's leading exports on healthy housing. She has served as president and CEO of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative since 1993. She's also a founding member of Maryland's Lead Poisoning Prevention Commission. She has lead Maryland's efforts to reduce lead poisoning by 98%.

I'd like to welcome you all to The Real News, and to The Real Baltimore. Thank you for being here.

Angel, I actually wanted to start with you, because you are a lead poisoning survivor. And you had been working hard to de-stigmatize what it means to have been poisoned by lead as a child. And you've also been working on a paper detailing the history of the lead industry, and its impacts on citizens and people like yourself.

So, tell us about your experiences growing up, and the work that you're doing now.

ANGEL KING-WILSON: Well, honestly, if you know anything about lead, you know that it doesn't have any real social issues. So, I can't say that my social life for childhood was very different from any of my peers, because it wasn't, as if it was a conversation that... like, I didn't go to school saying that I have lead, you know, and things like that. So, it wasn't really a conversation. And socially I wasn't affected. My home...

KIM BROWN: When did you first discover that you had been poisoned with lead?

ANGEL KING-WILSON: I actually was diagnosed... when I was talking to my mother, I just recently... she told me that I was diagnosed around, like, two or three years old, so that was in '92, around '92 or '93.

So, it was caught really early... very early on, and, yeah, my life wasn't really affected, because I was very quiet about it and since my home life, I lived in poverty, so my home life wasn't that great, so I really took to school. I always accomplished, I was on the Dean's List in college and things like that. Yeah, it didn't really affect me in the ways that people would think, honestly.

KIM BROWN: In what ways did it affect you?

ANGEL KING-WILSON: To be honest, I don't know. That's because... because there's no research, so I didn't have a doctor following me, and I wish that I did. But I don't know, to be honest.

KIM BROWN: Well, we reached out to the Maryland Department of Environment, and they gave us this statement. Maryland Secretary of the Environment -– his name is Ben Grumbles –- he said, "We are making progress, but have much more to do to win the battle against childhood lead poisoning in Maryland. The Maryland Department of the Environment is committed to initiatives that will reduce exposure to lead in newer rental homes, now covered under Maryland's Lead Law and to enforcing the law for older rental units."

And we also have a statement from Adam Skolnik of the Maryland Multi-Housing Association, which routinely opposes increased lead regulation. He told us, "Reputable rental housing providers abide by the law. We have been pushing our members to go lead-free or limited lead-free for years. Most of our members are going lead-free."

Lawrence Brown, the next question I wanted to pose to you, because you say that there should be a state of emergency declared in Baltimore. Tell us why.

LAWRENCE BROWN: Absolutely. When you look at that Maryland Department of Environment data, you see this since 1993, the number of children or number of cases where children have been poisoned, over 10 micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood, amounts to 65,650 cases where children have been counted as poisoned over that threshold.

And we've had in our city, recent examples of children who were poisoned at levels over that. Freddie Gray was poisoned at 36 micrograms per deciliter of lead in his blood.

Korryn Gaines, who was killed by Baltimore County police. But poisoned in Baltimore City, she had 12 or 22 micrograms per deciliter of lead in her blood, depending on which source you read.

And so, you know, these impacts that have been mentioned, are very disconcerting. Lead impacts everything from cognitive impairments, behavioral issues, it creates the propensity towards violence, it's elevated... it's associated with ADD and ADHD. It's even associated in some studies with elevated levels of depression disorder, and panic disorder.

And so, when you've had such a large number of children, who are now adults, that sit before us and we've never tackled this in any sort of meaningful way, especially their medical care. To look at their medical care is very... something that we really have to look at.

And not only do we have that crisis which is subsiding, but it's the low level lead poisoning, below 10 micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood, where we could have as many as 200,000 children who've been poisoned since 2000, or 200,000 cases were that's been recorded according to ND Data.

So, this is why there should be a state of emergency like that ... say, we've have neighborhoods in Baltimore that have higher levels... higher rates of lead poisoning than Flint, Michigan. We need a state of emergency, so that we can tackle this, and get rid of lead in our environment.

KIM BROWN: Is there any other precedent for cities, or even states, declaring states of emergency behind lead poisoning, in addition to Flint?

LAWRENCE BROWN: Not to my knowledge, but I don't think that should be any sort of preventing factor. You know, Public Health is supposed to prevent disease, and right now, we're waiting until children are poisoned by lead, to kick into gear. And I think that's absolutely... it's a criminal strategy; it's an inhumane strategy. We're putting children at risk for living way beneath their potential. It's the level... it’s the sort of slow violence.

You know, the fast violence in our society is very spectacular, the police brutality, the murders, that gets all the attention. But lead poisoning is a form of slow violence that the impact we may not see for 20 years. And I think that's something we have to really pay attention to, and not just be attracted to the fast violence that sort of grabs the everyday news.

KIM BROWN: Mmm. Ruth Ann, your organization is committed to helping those who have been impacted by lead poisoning. You have helped thousands of people who have found themselves in the situation. Do you agree with what Lawrence has to say here?

RUTH ANN NORTON: Well, absolutely, and we're really committed to prevention, because there is no cure, except for prevention. And you can look at a child who's poisoned at the age of two, and most typically they will not be able to compete in the classroom by the time they get to the third grade. And there are great exceptions to that, and we are delighted that kids who can overcome the impact.

But for many, and for most, it is a lifetime of not being able to compete in the classroom, of dropping out of school seven times more than their peers. Of having much lower earning over time, a higher rate of cardiac arrest, and a 46% increase in early mortality.

What our community, and communities around this country are robbed of, is potential. That children who would be able to succeed and thrive and flourish in life, it is cut out from under them by the time they're two years of age. And if you look at Freddie Gray, who was poisoned at a similar time to Angel, there are two different paths that happen.

And you have to wonder, where Mr. Gray might have been on that fateful day on March 30th, two years ago, if he had been able to get through school, reading. He was also impacted by asthma, and it's the housing condition that we've allowed in this country, that is immoral, and one that if we correct, we know that investing in lead poisoning, for every dollar that we invest in it, we get back $17 to $221 in taxpayer dollars.

Today, if we want to tackle the issue of lead poisoning in housing in Baltimore, it's going to cost us $845 million to do it. But if we don't do it, we are losing from our economy, $4.3 billion a year in costs associated with the carry of the generational toxic legacy of lead.

It's something we know how to fix. We know if we do fix it, what the results are, in terms of the ability, for pathways of trajectory and excellence and opportunity. And if we want to really level the playing field for our children, we have to start with housing conditions. We have to start with the environmental threat of lead, because, I think Jill Carter really nailed it, in terms of this is effectively a silent epidemic. That this country has allowed to go on since 1922, when every other developed country in the world banned the use of lead-based paint, and we didn't.

Now, Baltimore City was the first in the country to do it in 1951, and it took the United States until 1978, right? 56 years later. Under the influence of lobbyists, under the influence of paint companies who were making money, under the influence that we mandated in this country in the '30s, to put lead-based paint in low income housing because it was durable, and it was used by the lowest income housing and the wealthiest housing –- because of its durability.

But we effectively doomed generations of children and continued to do so by government practices, by market practices, and anyone in their right mind, for instance, they knew that they were going to expose their child to brain damage, would get their child out of that environment as fast as they could. But we leave it... we take away the choice and the opportunity for children before they can even crawl, before they can get to the classroom to compete, and we have to make a choice in this country, to do what we know works, or not.

KIM BROWN: David Albright, you have represented thousands of people who have been poisoned over the years with lead. How did we get to this point right now, and why is it in 2017, that we are still dealing with this crisis that has been impacting Baltimore for literally generations?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, a lot of it has to do with poverty, socioeconomic conditions, and the fact that you have generations after generations of kids living in these slums, in Baltimore City. And there just has not been the political will to correct this situation; there's not been the money to correct the situation. And people like Angel, really should be... should be applauded for what she has done.

But lead poisoning, the way it works, it's kind of like shooting at a kid with a bullet. Sometimes the bullet will hit the kid, sometimes not. But that’s the type of dangers you're dealing with. It's sort of like a drive-by shooting. Sometimes the kid get hits with a bullet, sometimes it doesn't. But even with Angel, everything that she's done, there's always a loss of IQ points. There always is a loss of some intelligence.

And the tragedy is, that when you see somebody like Angel, who's done so well with what she has, is that, think how much more she could be able to do, that she doesn't even know she could be able to do. And that's the tragedy of what we're dealing with.

It’s not just that you have kids who have learning disabilities, who have behavioral issues and end up in jail. But it's just that every person who comes in contact with lead loses IQ points. Even people you think who are highly functional, could be even more functional, and be contributing more to society.

KIM BROWN: Angle, we know that you have been studying this issue quite a bit. Talk to us about your research. What have you found about the lead industry's attempts to cover up the effects that they knew it was having on public health, and especially how this impacts communities of color, disproportionately.

ANGEL KING-WILSON: Well, the most interesting thing that I found in my research is the LIA, the Lead Industry Association, and their push to aggressively promote lead to children in the early 19th century. There were lead coloring books, and lead paint books, that were mainly geared towards children.

It was called the Dutch Paint Lead Boy, and he would go around with his lead friends and they would go and paint, and this was mainly for children. It makes me question, why target known fatal disease to children, because France had banned lead as early as 1909. So, you would think, why would America push it for children?

What was the second half of your question? That's the most interesting thing that I found. What was the second half of your question? I'm sorry.

KIM BROWN: How the effects of lead on public health disproportionally impact communities of color.

ANGEL KING-WILSON: Oh, yes. Mainly, lead was mainly targeting to low income housing, and people of color. They went around to schools, and things like that, in low-income areas to promote lead, and even hospitals in low-income areas to promote the painting of interior use of lead. So, this is no whoopsie-daisy, you know?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: And, Kim, as a thought to that, 99.9% of our clients are African-American. They're African-American kids. Now, are there white children who get lead poisoning? Sure. But we see in our practice, we see in the courtrooms, it's almost entirely African-American children who are born into poverty.

KIM BROWN: Lawrence Brown, what should we be demanding right now? When I hear what Angel said, what David said, what Ruth Ann said, especially at a time period that other countries had knowledge about lead poisoning and its effects. All I hear is Donald Trump talking about regulations, and job killing regulations. And not to say that that was the position of people who were making those decisions decades ago, but that's sort of what it rings like. So, right now, what should we be demanding?

LAWRENCE BROWN: Well, we should be demanding medical restitution for victims, reparations for homeowners, and children and folks who've been poisoned by lead in the past. Compensation to help deal with the impacts of it, and we need to make sure that lead paint companies can be held liable in Annapolis, to help fund some of this work that needs to happen.

But, I still go back to the fact that we have to declare a state of emergency, to help eliminate the existing threat that is still poisoning 2,000 to 3,000 children, even if it's only at low levels now. But there's this loss of IQ that we can't afford.

You know, there's a propensity towards violence. And our criminal justice system, and the crime rate in our communities that we can't afford. So, you know, I would say restitution, reparations and the elimination of lead poison, that's what we need now, and we must declare a state of emergency to make that happen.

KIM BROWN: What would a state of emergency do, exactly? Will it free up federal dollars? I mean, what happens when that happens?

LAWRENCE BROWN: I would think that it would do anything possible, to get that $845 or $850 million that we need, to fund the elimination of lead poisoning in our communities. And I know GHHI has had models of pay for success, and these mechanisms that we can use to help fund it. I'll let Ruth Ann talk about it.

RUTH ANN NORTON: I think you've got to look at the fact that we get an immediate return if we prevent this, right? So, you look at the current president who has said he wants to fix crumbling cities and lift the trajectory of African-American communities. Well, if you want to do that, this is the issue to get behind. If you want to have an infrastructure bill, then you put the billions of dollars -- $12.5 billion –- nationally to address the 1.25 million homes in the lowest income communities where kids are living today, with exposures to lead.

$12.5 billion is in fact, not a lot of money to fix an issue that costs us $43 billion a year, but most importantly robs the future of communities. We will never... as I said earlier, level that playing field. You can look at the fact that Flint, and Michigan, have recently gotten $119 million from the Center for Medicaid Services, to address lead in homes. Every state in the country should be eligible for the same kind of funding that goes out there.

It is unacceptable; it's beyond words, what happened in Flint, in terms of breaking the public trust. But Flint is only one example of places throughout this country that are overwhelmed with the issue of lead poisoning. And we are testing in this country less than 17% of the children that we should be testing. We test around 30% of the children in Baltimore City. But we know there are 1,100 kids every year, at that very low testing rate, that we send into the Baltimore City public school system, and into other schools, who will never be able to compete as a group to other kids.

If you want to turn cities around, and you want to have productivity, and you want to have long-term health, and it's not just children who are poisoned. We have to make the decision, the moral, the human and economic decision to do that. You can do it through a state of emergency.

But you know Donald Trump can do a favor to his own community, the real estate community, by trying to fix this issue, because they land up in the courts with the David Albrights of the world. The federal government every year sells hundreds of thousands of units with known lead hazards to the public. They should clean them up before they ever make the market.

Two months ago, the cover of the New York Times covered a family here in Baltimore, who was living in a unit from one of those houses sold from the government to a real estate developer, who then skirted the law by calling it rent-to-own. So, they didn't have to follow the law of landlord tenant law to clean it up, because Maryland, for all that we're talking about, has the strongest laws in the country.

So, we have to take those choices. The very first thing that the government can do today, if it's government-owned, if it's backed or insured by governments, or banks, who are required under the Community Reinvestment Act, to invest in communities, every single one of those homes in the United States should be cleaned up for the toxins that are within them, before it makes the market.

KIM BROWN: David, when you have a client that you're representing who has been impacted by lead poisoning, and you're able to recoup damages for that client, who does the paying out? I'm curious because, should or could paint manufacturers be held responsible for lead poisoning, even at this point in time?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, they should be held responsible. The problem is that under Maryland law there is no way effectively, to sue lead paint manufacturers.

KIM BROWN: Why not?

DAVID ALBRIGHT: Because lead paint is lead paint. It's ubiquitous, it's generic, it doesn't... if you took a chip of lead based paint, you can't tell whether it's Sherwin-Williams, whether it's from some other company. Just can't tell who it is. It's just lead paint. It's like gasoline. When the gasoline comes out of Exxon is the same as the gasoline that comes out of Mobil, out of BP, whatever.

So, the money that we're able to collect is from landlords' insurance. However, there's a big problem with that. The problem is is that the insurance is drying up. And there's just not enough insurers to go around to compensate all the children who need help. One important thing is what the largest thing that Ruth Ann also touched upon, is that the money that we get through a jury from the insurance companies, not only does it go to compensate the injured child, but the injured child spends almost all that money in the local community.

So, we have children who've got compensation who've bought houses. They buy the houses in Baltimore, and they clean them up. They spend money on remedial education programs that are done locally, that they spend the money locally, so all that's very positive.

But you're absolutely right. We can't get full, complete reparations until we have the lead pain manufacturers involved at the table to pay.

RUTH ANN NORTON: Let me disagree that it's full positive, because that's all happening after kids get poisoned. It's happening after the injury has happened; it's happening after brains have been damaged, that people are at greater health risks. And while I understand the need to do that and to push it through litigation, we have to really make a decision, the moral decision, to say that we aren't going to let another child get poisoned.

KIM BROWN: Obviously, this is a very intense and very complex conversation. It's going to take more than just the time that we have allotted to get through this, so if you could please join us for Part 2 of our conversation about the crisis of lead poisoning here in Baltimore City right here on The Real Baltimore.


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