Health news Health & Medical News Officials revamp lead-paint removal program

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Officials revamp lead-paint removal program

City officials said Tuesday that they've revamped Baltimore's struggling program to remove lead-paint poisoning hazards from housing after losing a $3.9 million federal grant, and intend to reapply soon for federal funds to underwrite the effort.

A children's health advocate, meanwhile, disputed the city health commissioner's explanation for the grant loss at a City Council hearing into the funding cutoff, and warned that the city must improve its management of the effort to help landlords and homeowners reduce lead-paint risks in their homes.

Members of the City Council's health committee pressed for assurances that problems have been fixed so the city can help as many of its children as possible. Though the number of youngsters poisoned by ingesting lead paint dust has declined dramatically over the years, more than 200 cases were reported last year, and thousands of older homes still have the hazardous paint in them.

"We must make sure this doesn't happen again, and move on," said Councilwoman Sharon G. Middleton.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development declared the city a "high-risk" grantee last fall, ineligible to apply for more lead-abatement funds after finding the city health department seriously behind in fixing up homes and unable to document the work it had done. The health department had pledged to treat 364 homes, but had managed less than half that number by last spring, with less than a year to go on the grant. Health officials say they had finished work on 297 homes by the time the grant was closed out.

Housing Commissioner Paul T. Graziano said the lead-paint abatement effort has been transferred to his agency from the health department, where it will go forward with a smaller staff, a lower goal, better accountability and a combination of state and other federal funds.

The housing agency aims to treat flaking, peeling lead-based paint in at least 112 homes or apartments over the next 14 months, said Ken Strong, assistant housing commissioner. The effort will be funded with $400,000 in federal "block grant" funds, with hopes of getting up to $2 million in state funds. Strong said he hopes to surpass the housing goal but didn't want to "overpromise," given the problems the city has had fulfilling previous lead-abatement targets.
Graziano said HUD officials have recently cleared the city to apply for a new grant, but he cautioned that Baltimore's chances of getting one this year aren't great, because its past problems will count against it.

Michelle Miller, programs director for HUD's Office of Healthy Homes and Lead Hazard Control, confirmed that Baltimore is eligible to apply for up to $3.5 million in the current round of grants, to be awarded later this year. But she said other cities will be competing for the funds, and past performance is considered in rating applicants.

Dr. Oxiris Barbot, who took over as health commissioner last July, blamed the grant's loss on startup problems before she arrived, difficulties finding enough houses eligible for government-funded repairs and inflexibility by federal officials.

She said of nearly 600 homes considered for abatement work, nearly a quarter were dropped because owners or landlords didn't respond, and nearly one-fifth were ruled ineligible for various reasons. Homes with leaking roofs or other structural problems couldn't be treated, she explained, and state regulations prohibited helping property owners in arrears on their mortgages. Strong, the housing official, said those and other guidelines have since been revised to make it easier to treat homes in need of abatement.

Barbot said city health officials realized last spring they may have set an "overly ambitious" goal and asked HUD for a six-month extension. She said the federal agency was slow to respond and denied Baltimore's request, even though it had granted similar extensions to other cities.

But Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, disputed Barbot. There are plenty of homes in Baltimore in need of abatement, she said. The health department had been having trouble administering this and other grants, Norton said, and HUD "decided they would not enable continually bad behavior and bad management of grants. And that's the facts."

Norton called transferring the abatement effort to the housing department a "smart move," because many homes with lead-paint problems also need other repairs the agency is in a position to help with. She promised her nonprofit group's help, but said city agencies need to cooperate better, and more aggressively deal with housing where children have been poisoned.

Source: By Timothy B. Wheeler, The Baltimore Sun

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