Federal public health officials now rate lead poisoning as the biggest urban health threat for young children. Lead poisoning is slow and insidious, and its effects can take years to develop. But with troubling new numbers on just how many children have been affected, one city has gotten a wake-up call.
Tiffany Sanford didn't know the house she was renting in Baltimore, Maryland contained remnants of lead paint. Then doctors tested the blood of her daughter Bobbi.
They found nearly lethal levels of lead, and ordered the child admitted to the hospital for nineteen days. The lead levels are now falling, but her mother worries that the damage has already been done.
"She's very aggressive for a two year old," Sanford says. "Her temper just flares sometimes for no reason."
Lead paint was banned in 1978, but it remains a health threat in many older cities. Ironically, urban renewal contributes to the problem. As slums are torn down and old homes renovated, one of the by-products is dangerous lead dust.
Baltimore mayor Martin O'Malley has made lead clean-up a priority after learning that 1,200 children a year in his city are being poisoned. Lead poisoning is linked to learning disabilities and some believe that it may contribute to street violence and crime.
"We went a long time shrugging our shoulders and thinking it's something that's eventually going to go away. It's not going to go away," O'Malley says.
A new law in Baltimore requires tests for lead in all children under three.
The results: one in five kids have dangerous amounts of lead in their blood. And Baltimore is not alone.
"There's the Philadelphias and the Washington, D.C.'s. There's also the Chicagos, Los Angeles, Portlands on the west coast. Any house that's built previous to 1950 very likely has lead paint in it," says Baltimore city health commissioner Dr. Peter Beilenson.
Officials are now ordering emergency lead inspections. Renter Dona Wiggins demanded one after her daughter Lauren scored high for lead poisoning. And she worries.
"If she's more hyper than she was two days before, I'm scared that there's some danger done by lead," Wiggins says.
Tiffany Sanford and Bobbi have now moved to a new, lead-free home. But she can't leave behind the fear.
"My concern is her going to school," Sanford says. "Will she be able to keep up with the other kids in school? Now, basically, will she get to school?"
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