Lead Poisoning: Baltimore’s Forgotten Public Health Crisis (2/2)
In part two, our expert panel discusses how to solve Baltimore’s lead poisoning epidemic
KIM BROWN: Welcome back to Part 2 of our episode, here at The Real Baltimore. We are discussing the lead poisoning crisis here in Baltimore City.
I’d like to reintroduce our panel. We’re joined with Angel King-Wilson. She is a Western High School alumna, with degrees in both Psychology and English from West Virginia Wesleyan College. She works to inspire the art community here in Baltimore, as director of Cultivate Passion LLC. She’s right now pursuing her graduate degree in Creative Writing and Publishing Arts at the University of Baltimore.
We’re also joined today with David Albright. He’s an attorney with over two decades of experience, representing victims of lead poisoning.
Lawrence Brown is an assistant professor in the School of Community Health and Policy at Morgan State University. He is also a long time public health advocate.
And lastly Ruth Ann Norton, she is one of the nation’s leading experts 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 led Maryland’s efforts to reduce lead poisoning by 98%.
Welcome back, panel, for Part 2 of our discussion. Thank you all.
RUTH ANN NORTON: We shouldn’t wait for years later, to go
into a court system and collect where then kids’ settlements get sold, which we saw in the Freddie Gray case, where we are banking on the back end. The child, who’s going through the lawsuits, is a child who is poisoned. And we owe it to ourselves and to our community, to try to push the nuisance statutes, if we can’t get the market share liability, that we use in other environmental actions today, to move this forward.
To utilize Medicaid money up front, rather than after the fact, and in this country we invest $25 billion a year from philanthropic and private philanthropy, for grade level reading outcomes, school attendance and school graduation.
Think about if we redirected that to the things that keep kids from reading in school, keep them from graduating, keep them from succeeding, and redirect it to housing conditions in the United States.
KIM BROWN: Well, let me ask this to the panel -– I’m sorry. Lawrence, did you have a point? Okay. We’re only testing 30% of the kids in Baltimore. In 2015, I believe that’s the correct number, 30% of the children were tested for lead. That’s the majority of the kids are not being tested for lead. So, it’s almost like there’s a problem here, but we’re just not looking to find it.
So, how can we expand those testing rates? Who is possibly standing in the way of testing more children when it comes to this?
RUTH ANN NORTON: Well, Governor Hogan just did universal blood lead testing for the state of Maryland. So, the law is now that every child at the age of 12 and 24 months is supposed to be tested for lead, and is supposed to be tested before they go to school. But we really have to push the medical community to actually perform the test; we have to provide access to the test, because it’s not being done in the doctor’s office.
KIM BROWN: How come the city doesn’t test the children directly in the schools?
RUTH ANN NORTON: Exactly.
ANGEL KING-WILSON: Can I make a comment?
KIM BROWN: Sure, by all means.
ANGEL KING-WILSON: Why…? I want to know; why isn’t all… why the percentage is so low, and why do they stop at such an early age? Because my mother is 64, and she says when I was born that before — when she was pregnant — that the doctor told her that she had high levels of lead. My mother’s 64 and she suffers from mental disability, and she hasn’t been compensated, no reparations, nothing like that.
So, to test … at such a low age, and then not to follow history and touch as such… test such a small number, is so offensive. To me, especially as a lead victim, it’s so offensive because… and to say… and to also, like, it’s just… it’s so shocking.
DAVID ALBRIGHT: It all goes back to that old saying that everybody’s sorry, but nobody wants to pay.
ANGEL KING-WILSON: Yes, exactly.
DAVID ALBRIGHT: And it’s in touch what Ruth Ann says, is that if I were… if I suddenly were out of business tomorrow, because old problems were fixed, that’d be wonderful. I mean, I’ve had the privilege of representing many, many children.
Prevention is the most important thing. The problem, though, is that what happens is that although idealistically if we could do prevention, that’d be wonderful. Things happen. Stuff doesn’t get done. People are people, and then you have problems.
KIM BROWN: But, David, what laws need to be changed in Annapolis, in order to better serve the community at large? I mean, as Ruth Ann just pointed out, Governor Hogan has signed, I assume in this…
RUTH ANN NORTON: He did it by Executive Order two years ago.
KIM BROWN: … Executive Order, to make sure that universal lead testing is happening for children, so what else can be done at the state level? And even at the city level, to accommodate more kids to be tested?
DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, there has to be… the problem with testing is part educational, is part funding, is part the medical community really insisting upon it. The reason why you have a 30% rate of testing, is because you just don’t have the awareness, that the city has to place upon all the people involved.
Not just the moms, but the medical community. I mean, every mom knows that they have to take their child to a well-care visit after the child’s born, okay? Fine. Why isn’t the medical community then saying, “All right, we got a new baby, test them for lead.”
RUTH ANN NORTON: Right there.
KIM BROWN: What about landlords, though? I mean, how culpable are landlords in knowing what contaminants are in their properties that they have tenants living in?
DAVID ALBRIGHT: Well, the landlords are… no question that they’re culpable. But it’s a practical problem in dealing with landlords, who have either died, filed for bankruptcy, hidden themselves behind shell corporations so you can’t get at them. That’s a real problem in dealing with the landlords.
But one of the things that could be done in Annapolis — and Ruth Ann touched upon this, so did Jill Carter — is a market share liability law, which would require all the lead paint manufacturers to come to the table and say, based upon how much paint that they sold in Maryland during a specific time periods, that’s the percentage of the damages that they’re responsible for. And that could result in a huge cleanup.
RUTH ANN NORTON: It could. But it’s only one tool, and could take years to do that, and I think the nuisance statutes allow you to do it today, and to take action. But, we should be doing tax credits for homeowners, and for rental property owners who want to clean up. We should make a decision out of our general obligation funds, that if we’re going to improve what’s going to happen in schools, that we’re going to invest in cleaning this issue up.
We should move to expand something very interesting that the current state Medicaid director has done, is using some Medicaid money under CHIP(?) to do lead hazard control, expand those funds. And if we need to do it, then we should issue bonds in this state to do cleanup and make a commitment. Because even when we talk about testing children, the only thing we’re going to find out is if they’re poisoned, or they’re not. And if we find out that they are poisoned, we are too late.
And so, what we have to do, is redirect almost every resource to the money of the cleanup, which would create an enormous amount of skilled jobs, both on the contractor side, and the risk assessment side. I have young men who came to work for me that are doing work in the community now, doing risk assessment work, they came unemployed, and now are making very good wages and putting their kids through school.
And we could employ, in communities cross this city, and across the state, in doing this, and increasing the value there. We know how to find lead paint. We know how much it costs. And we know the results if we do it. What we have seen, is a 98% reduction in lead poisoning in this state, and know that that’s not enough, and that’s how bad the problem is. But what we can do is fix it.
KIM BROWN: Lawrence Brown, I wanted to get back to you, to harp on a point that Angel made, because there is a lot of focus on testing children under the age of six. But it would seem like a natural point of reason that, if children can be contaminated and poisoned with lead, so can adults.
So, how come…? Well, I guess my question is, are there any studies focused on what the health impacts are for adults, as well? And do we follow children into adulthood and really track them at the rate that we should?
LAWRENCE BROWN: I think there was just a study published in Australia, or New Zealand, that was reported last week, that talked about they were tracking, I believe white children in New Zealand, and looking at if they were poisoned as a child. And they followed them later, they had lower earnings, they had lower ability on test scores, they didn’t achieve what their parents often achieved in their lives, and so they had a lower trajectory. It impacted their life outcomes in a very tremendous way.
So, there’s some of that that’s beginning to take place. But like I said, that was white children. I don’t think… I haven’t seen anything that’s looking at African-American children, and really sort of tracking what are the health outcomes, because then you have to really get to another point about reparations. I mean, the way that this is impacting disproportionately, this predatory slumlord behavior, impacting black children in Baltimore. And I think there’s a couple of other issues that we aren’t talking about.
Ruth Ann mentioned the bonds that can be issued. Well, we issued $660 million in TIF bonds last year, to billionaire Kevin Plank and his development firm, Sagamore Development, to build a new mini-city in Port Covington here in Baltimore. If we can issue $660 million in bonds, we can issue $845 million in bonds to help eliminate lead poisoning.
So, that needs to be a priority. The second thing is, we talked about the medical community, there’s also the public health community. Our Baltimore City Public Health Department, they issued Healthy Baltimore 2020, and you see the four things that they mention. They mention behavioral health, life course, violence, and a fourth category.
But what you don’t see is this real emphasis on lead poisoning, and how lead poison impacts the levels of violence, the behavior halt, and the life course. Lead poison is one of the best things we can do to get the best bang for our buck. But our health department isn’t focusing on this as a state of emergency, and driving this issue to where it needs to be.
And we’re not doing it as a city, we’re investing in billionaires and not in people living in disinvested real … black communities. That’s really the political shame of where we are today.
RUTH ANN NORTON: Let me say that there have been studies done, longitudinal studies done, in the United States about post-six years of age, right? And what Ellen Silverhill, who’s a MacArthur Genius Award Winner, who’s at the Bloomberg School of Public Health, found is that we have an eight-times greater likelihood of hypertension and kidney failure for adults who were exposed to lead. We have a 16% to 19% increase in cardiac arrest, and for those exposed to lead over the course of life, a 46% increase in early mortality.
KIM BROWN: These are all afflictions that disproportionately impact African-Americans anyway.
RUTH ANN NORTON: Absolutely. But it is layering on and probably foundational, in many of the outcomes that we see in communities of color, in low income communities. Not only in Baltimore, but throughout this country, so there needs to be a massive federal response. We do need the lead paint manufacturers and the pigment manufacturers to come to the table, and to put significant money in there.
We do need to hold landlords who are putting a product on the market -– it’s called a rental property –- but we also need to understand that there are tens of thousands of Baltimore families who are trapped in low income, homeowner-occupied properties, who bought properties decades ago where there was lead-based paint. And the cost of removal of that for them is higher than families who have inherited properties, or who are older, now can afford.
And we have thousands of families of older Baltimoreans who have grandchildren coming to visit into these older homes. And it takes only the equivalent of three granules of sugar of leaded dust, from the breakdown of lead-based paint, to poison a child. We’ve got to get this in pretty clear form.
But what also needs to be understood, is it’s doable, it’s achievable, and as Lawrence knows, we’ve put out a national strategic plan to end lead poisoning in the United States in five years. And if we take the major strokes that we need to take, including writing the check, we can be talking about eliminating childhood lead poisoning as a major public health threat, in five years. And we have the opportunity to do it.
KIM BROWN: David, you talked about how the resources for the insurance for your clients to be able to recoup compensation after being poisoned, that’s dwindling, or it’s shrinking, or it’s going to be running out soon. What’s going to happen when those funds are completely depleted?
DAVID ALBRIGHT: It’s a problem. And it goes back to what I said, everybody’s sorry, but nobody wants to pay. When you have a situation like that, it becomes even more imperative that we get the lead paint manufacturers to the table. And we have to get them to the table because they’ve got to start writing some big checks.
ANGEL KING-WILSON: I agree.
And did you rebuttal his point about that? I’m sorry, when you… his point about the lead industry’s paying up.
RUTH ANN NORTON: No. I don’t… I mean, the lead industry should pay. I think we’re one of the leading voices in the country about them paying. What I’m saying is, it breaks my heart to see that we have to go to litigation against landlords, or against paint companies at all, right? I mean, not against paint companies, but against landlords where we’re taking a lawsuit because a child’s already poisoned.
When we have within our power to take money from the paint companies, to take money from the government, from the taxpayers, to take money from the health system, right? And take action now. So, my point is, that as much as I like David, right? I would love to put him out of business, because he shouldn’t have to bring a lawsuit, because by the time you get to a lawsuit it’s after the fact.
And I wanted to circle back on your mom.
ANGEL KING-WILSON: Mm-hmm.
RUTH ANN NORTON: A study out of Brigham Women’s Hospital in Boston, about a decade and a half ago, was published in the New England Journal of Medicine. And it talked about older women who were going to the emergency room, and being discovered to have lead poisoning, because the lead that had been stored in their bones through their lifetime was starting to leach again, because of osteoporosis.
So, for women, every time there’s a menstrual cycle, if we have lead in our system, we are leaching that lead, which puts children at risk if you’re pregnant. But has impact, as we get older in our thinning bones, and likely has the same impact on men. We just haven’t studied it.
So, I think about your mom, right? And having… you’re carrying with you for the rest of your life, lead that’s stored in bone, and brain, and teeth, and it coming back and recycling as a very bad toxic hazard in her life.
KIM BROWN: Angel, I wanted to leave with you, because you have not let what happened to you stop you. And I’m curious as to whether or not your research, and your focus on the lead industry, and its impacts on public health, has empowered you in any way? And what’s been the most empowering thing you’ve discovered in your research?
ANGEL KING-WILSON: The most empowering thing that I discovered in my research, is the fact that I feel like lead is a kind of stigmatized thing to put black people down. You know? Like, it’s like you said, a tale of two cities. So, if you keep lead and you’ve got a group of people thinking, I can’t do this because I have something, you know, it’ll keep them down.
But as we said before, these symptoms have been the same as poverty, and there hasn’t been no real, real research. Or, you can’t say that has this study has followed this person from this age when they were diagnosed, up until this age, and look at what they did, or look at what happened. And what you followed with, there’s but people bring up the things like Freddie Gray and Corinne Gates, you know, and they all say, oh, look at this person who had lead. But they were victims. You know?
So, I think lead is a matter of keeping two cities apart. So, in my voice, I’m trying to say — say that you have lead, and say the things that you’ve done, and you can overcome, you know? And that’s really my main goal, and this is the first time this year that I’ve even said to people that I have lead. I’ve been always kind of hiding it. And the more I talk to people, the more somebody else will say, “Oh, I have lead too,” and they’re in college, or they’re, you know, working, they’re doing the same thing as the people who doesn’t have lead.
So, I just want to de-stigmatize this lead, baby … thing, you know? And let people know that they can do whatever they want. They don’t have to be like Freddie Gray, or Corinne Gates, people who were victims, and I find it offensive, to be honest.
KIM BROWN: Let’s go around table and get our final points. Lawrence.
LAWRENCE BROWN: Well, mainly, I think… I appreciate everything Angel has been telling us is absolutely true, and I think we need to hear more from folks who have been lead poisoned, in how they process having it, and overcoming it. I think to our discussion about both the federal government, and the lawsuits that need to be filed, I don’t think Baltimore City needs to wait on either.
Baltimore City took the initiative to forge $660 million TIF bonds for Port Covington, it can take the initiative to pass out $1 billion TIF to both eliminate lead, and help provide care for victims.
RUTH ANN NORTON: It is the most preventable public health threat that we have. It’s one that we’ve proven to advance. And I think we have to make a decision to do this. It has so much… it is also a real symptom of housing conditions, and how we treat neighborhoods, and how we treat communities. And how we lack that investment that we know will propel kids and families, and we have to make the decision to fund what works. And I think that’s the most important message that I have.
KIM BROWN: David?
DAVID ALBRIGHT: I think that the points made by everyone on the panel have been wonderful. Angel, I’m just so glad to meet you. I mean, you were really…
ANGEL KING-WILSON: Thank you. I appreciate it. Thank you.
DAVID ALBRIGHT: …inspiring, because I have so many of my clients who unfortunately, are not doing what you’re doing. I really, really appreciate listening to what you had to say today.
ANGEL KING-WILSON: Thank you. I appreciate it.
KIM BROWN: Well, we appreciate you tuning in to this episode of The Real Baltimore.
On behalf of our guests David Albright, Ruth Ann Norton, Lawrence Brown and Angel Wilson, I’m Kim Brown and thank you for watching The Real Baltimore, brought to you by The Real News Network.