More than a week after his death from severe spinal cord injuries sustained under police custody, the circumstances of Freddie Gray Jr.’s life, particularly his upbringing in the inner city, are coming to surface through court documents and testimonies of family, friends, and attorneys.
While these narrative include stories of poverty, frequent moves, a mother’s drug problem, they too highlight a public health issue that has plagued thousands of Baltimore residents since before the city banned the use of lead-based paint. Developers’ lethargic response to the coding changes became the center of a case in which Gray’s family won a settlement.
In 2008, Gray’s family filed a lawsuit against Stanley Rochkind, the owner of a home they rented for four years, arguing that the children’s exposure to the substance played a significant part in their educational, behavioral and medical problems. During Gray’s deposition, he mentioned peeling paint in all of the windows of his family home and an attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnosis. Lab tests conducted in the 1990s showed that he and his two sisters had levels of lead in their blood nearly double that of what the state of Maryland defines as the minimum for lead poisoning.
As the lead poisoning case went on, Gray’s family learned that they counted among legions of people affected by Rochkind’s oversight. According to the court documents, Rochkind, who owned hundreds of rentals across the city, has been involved in other lead paint lawsuits, including one when the Maryland Department of the Environment fined him $90,000 and he had to rid more than 480 units as part of a consent agreement.
“This is the toxic legacy of lead-based paint,” Ruth Ann Norton, head of the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative and a founding member of the Maryland Lead Poisoning Prevention Commission, told the Baltimore Sun. “Our kids are ill equipped to stay in the classroom, finish school. They’re very unlikely to go on to higher education. They’re less likely to be able to hold a job,” she said. “They’re less equipped to be able to overcome the poverty and other circumstances that pull them down. Children with lead poisoning will have defects, regardless of whether their parents are ‘nice’ or not,” Norton said.
Even though Maryland defines a lead blood-level of 10 micrograms per deciliter or more as lead poisoning, the Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention said that exposure, no matter the level, endangers children and thwarts their physical and mental development. The government agency set five milligrams as the reference level for response.
In Maryland, more than 2,600 children have been found to have high levels of lead in their blood, according an annual report released by the Maryland Department of the Environment last year. That data represented a four percent decline in cases. While the number of childhood lead poisoning cases have steadily fallen since the 1994, when Baltimore passed a law targeting houses built before 1950, attention has recently shifted to homes in owner-occupied and rental homes not covered by the law.
Once lead enters the bloodstream via inhalation of dust, ingestion of food, drinking of water that flows through lead pipes, or hand to mouth activity, it travels to the nerves, kidneys, brain, muscles, and heart. In children and adults, the lead can be stored in the bones and teeth for decades before flowing into the bloodstream again and further damaging organs.
Long-term exposure to lead can cause blood anemia, colic, kidney damage, muscle weakness, brain damage, and death. Left unabated, lead in the bloodstream also causes a worsening of reaction time, memory, and retention of new information. A growing body has shown that childhood lead poisoning, in tandem with disparities in access to social and medical services, has widened the achievement gap. One particular study found that once blood-lead level was taken into consideration, race became less of a factor in academic achievement.
“The impacts of low-level lead exposure extend across generations through the close relationship between health and educational outcomes,” researchers from the National Center for Health Housing wrote in a 2009 issue brief about early childhood lead exposure, stating that improving one’s life chance changes start at improving their physical home environment. “Maternal education and socioeconomic status are strong predictors of lifelong health. Reducing the average blood-lead levels of today’s children will improve educational achievement for tomorrow’s parents, and will, in turn, set the stage for both improved health and educational outcomes for their children.”
Officials in Baltimore have been in a mission to improve the living situation of their most impoverished residents. Two years ago, owners of homes built between 1950 and 1978 — the year Maryland passed its own set of laws — had to register with the state and prove the absence of peeling, chipping, or flaking paint that infants and toddlers could easily digest. They also had to notify residents to report deteriorating paint to the state.
Maryland officials also divulged plans to enforce a federal regulation that requires contractors to take precaution against lead paint when doing repairs and renovations in housing. Public health leaders advised the state to expand and improve testing so that includes and treats all children, regardless of the level of lead in their bloodstream. They plan to do so through health care providers that will inform parents of their young ones’ levels during visits.
“This allows us to get to those kids that we haven’t been able to get to with protection,” Norton told the Baltimore Sun last year when she commented on expanded state oversight of rental homes and home repairs and renovations. “It is critically important to use this moment to recognize that we must double and triple our collective efforts to increase blood lead level testing in Maryland as there is no safe level,” Norton added.
The issue of childhood lead exposure is not endemic to Baltimore. Each year, more than 300,000 children across the United States under the age of five are found to have unsafe levels of lead in their body. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention designates lead-based paint and lead contaminated dust as the most hazardous sources of lead for youngsters. Nearly 24 million housing units — 4 million of which are home to more than two children — across the country have deteriorated leaded paint, according to figures collected by the government organization.
Children living at or below the poverty line or those who live in older housing stand the greatest risk for lead exposure, particularly those under the age of six undergoing a period of rapid growth. Years of housing policy has brought forth a situation that relegates families in low-income inner-city enclaves to dismal conditions similar to what Gray’s family experienced. A study conducted by the Environmental Justice and Health Alliance for Chemical Policy Reform last year — showed that low-income African-Americans and Latinos disproportionately lived in areas known as vulnerability zones — neighborhoods low in property value in which residents are exposed to deadly chemicals.