Lead Poisoning: The Ignored Scandal

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
A child with high levels of lead in her blood walking past a wall of peeling lead paint in her family’s apartment, Brooklyn, July 2003


In December 1993, a slum landlord in Baltimore named Lawrence Polakoff rented an apartment to a twenty-one-year-old single mother and her three-year-old son, Max.1 A few days after they moved in, Max’s mother was invited to participate in a research study comparing how well different home renovation methods protected children from lead poisoning, which is still a major problem endangering the health of millions of American children, many of them poor.

Congress had banned the sale of interior lead paint in 1978, but it remained on the walls of millions of homes nationwide, and there was no adequate federal program to deal with it. In Baltimore, most slum housing contained at least some lead paint, and nearly half of the children who lived in these houses had levels of lead in their blood well above that considered safe by the Centers for Disease Control. Max’s blood lead was low when he moved into Polakoff’s apartment, but Polakoff had been cited at least ten times in the past for violating Baltimore’s lead paint regulations, and several former tenants would later sue him for poisoning their children, so the boy was now in great danger.

The research study in which Max and his mother participated was run by two scientists affiliated with Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins University with support from the US Environmental Protection Agency. The scientists had formed a partnership with a local contractor, who identified slum landlords like Polakoff and urged them to rent preferentially to families with children aged six months to four years, just when they start crawling around the house and when lead exposure is most dangerous to the developing brain. If the parents agreed, their home would receive one of three different types of lead removal and their children—all of whom were healthy and normal and had low blood lead when they joined the study—would be given regular blood tests to see if their lead levels rose or fell.2

The three lead removal methods varied in cost and thoroughness. In twenty-five of the homes, areas with peeling paint were scraped and repainted and a doormat was placed by the main entrance. This was called “level I abatement” and the cost was not to exceed $1,650. Another twenty-five homes received more extensive “level II abatement” in which chipping paint was scraped and repaired, doormats were placed at all entrances, an easy-to-clean floor covering was installed, and collapsing walls were covered with plasterboard. The cost of this was not to exceed $3,500. In a third set of twenty-five dwellings, all of the above was done, but in addition, all windows were replaced. The cost of this “level III abatement” was not to exceed $7,000. Two control groups…

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