More than 85,000 Baltimore homes are estimated to contain lead hazards, such as lead-based paints and lead dust, and it could cost billions to contain or remove those hazards, according to a new report published by the Abell Foundation.
The report, which is authored by data scientist Luke Scrivener, estimates that it could cost up to $1.4 billion to conduct lead hazard control and up to $4.2 billion for lead abatement across Baltimore’s housing units.
Lead exposure, especially during childhood, has been documented to cause neurological damage on cognitive development. Therefore, Scrivener said it is imperative to eradicated residential lead hazards.
“The public health benefits of eradicating lead hazards from Baltimore City’s housing stock are clear,” he wrote. “In order to fully prevent future cases of lead exposure, it will be necessary to assess and remove the source of lead exposure—the residential lead hazards themselves.”
The most common source of childhood lead exposure is deteriorating lead-based paint in homes, which accounted for an estimated 78% of all potential lead exposure sources in Baltimore City in 2021, according to the Maryland Department of the Environment.
The Abell report grouped the city and state governments’ strategies to address lead hazards and exposure into three main categories: containing and eliminating lead hazards; lead testing and education; and legislation to protect tenants and provide support to those who have been exposed to lead.
Scrivener said in the report that “one of the most impactful pieces” of lead-related legislation has been the 1994 Maryland Reduction of Lead Risk in Housing Law.
The 1994 law, which was later revised in 2012, requires landlords to conduct lead hazard reduction work on properties built before 1978 in order to rent them out, and to register properties’ lead reduction certificate with the state environmental department. However, the law’s exception for owner-occupied housing units leaves “a sizeable gap” in the law’s coverage, Scrivener said.
While Baltimore City has received grant funding for lead hazard control from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development since the early 1990s and from the state government since the late 1990s and early 200s, Baltimore continues to lack adequate resources to contain and eradicate residential lead hazards across the city, according to the report.
The number of children with reported lead blood levels of 10 µg/dL, the level that the CDC in 1991 said should prompt public health action, decreased by 97% from 1998 to 2019.
However, in 2019, there were 772 confirmed cases of Baltimore children ages 0-6 who had lead blood levels of 5 µg/dL or higher. And only about half of 1- and 2-year-olds in Baltimore City were tested for lead each year between 2017 and 2019.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2021 lowered the blood lead reference level – the threshold for identifying children with levels of lead in their blood higher than than most children – to 3.5 µg/dL. With that lowered threshold, the report said data going forward will show an increase in the number of children defined as having lead exposure.
The containment and elimination of lead hazards can be broken down into two main strategies: lead hazard control and lead abatement.
Lead hazard control includes annual inspections to monitor and maintain lead hazards with measures such as cleaning and painting, whereas lead abatement involves the permanent removal of lead hazards.
Using findings from the 2011 American Healthy Homes Survey, the report estimates that out of the total 199,338 Baltimore homes built before 1978, there are 85,087 occupied housing units that contain “significant” lead hazards.
From 1988 to 2019, 7,928 housing units received a lead violation. Since 1988, 5,824 of those units have been abated.
As of October 2019, the most recent data on record, there were 2,104 Baltimore housing units with reported, unabated lead violations, including 966 that were neither vacant nor slated to be demolished.
Scrivener calculated ranges for the per-unit costs of lead hazard control – $10,000 to $17,000 – and lead abatement – $30,000 to $50,000 – based on cost information from the city’s housing department and five local contractors that the state environmental department has accredited to perform lead hazard services in Baltimore.
Based on those ranges, Scrivener estimates that lead hazard control would cost about $851 million to $1.4 billion, and lead abatement work would cost about $2.5 billion to $4.2 billion for the approximately 85,000 occupied housing units in Baltimore that contain lead hazards.
Specifically for the 966 units with active lead hazard violations, lead hazard control work would cost about $9.7 million to $16.4 million, and lead abatement would cost about $29 million to $48.3 million.
Currently, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Lead Hazard Control is the largest source of funding for lead interventions in Baltimore City. However, the HUD funding comes with limitations, Scrivener said, such as eligibility requirements for the types of housing units and households that receive the funding, as well as a greater focus on lead hazard control than on lead abatement.
Scrivener added that currently residential lead hazards are primarily traced from a child who already has elevated lead levels.
“Without the infrastructure and resources to systematically evaluate homes for lead hazards, this practice—relying on test results as the primary barometer to identify lead hazards—will ultimately be reactive, not preventive,” he wrote.