Would mothers poison their children with lead for free housing? Maryland’s housing secretary thinks so

From the Baltimore Sun:

“Gov. Larry Hogan’s top housing official said Friday that he wants to look at loosening state lead paint poisoning laws, saying they could motivate a mother to deliberately poison her child to obtain free housing.

Kenneth C. Holt, secretary of Housing, Community and Development, told an audience at the Maryland Association of Counties summer convention here that a mother could just put a lead fishing weight in her child’s mouth, then take the child in for testing and a landlord would be liable for providing the child with housing until the age of 18.

Pressed afterward, Holt said he had no evidence of this happening but said a developer had told him it was possible. ‘This is an anecdotal story that was described to me as something that could possibly happen,’ Holt said.”

This is yet another example of a public official being completely out of touch with the people he serves. Not only that, but it is an example of someone who doesn’t think critically about what they are about to say. You see, lead poisoning in the context of housing or environmental contamination is a chronic condition which takes some time to happen. A person cannot simply “put a lead fishing weight” in their mouth and have a clinical presentation that is indicative of lead poisoning. Sure, you maybe could have an elevated lead level, but lead poisoning is more than just a blood level.

Of course, you cannot expect a non-scientist to know this, but you should expect a public official to consult with a scientist before they open their mouth. Others offered a rebuttal (from the same article):

“Health advocates reacted by saying they would fight any effort to weaken lead paint protections — and Holt’s suggestion that parents might poison their children to gain housing benefits provoked outrage.

‘To me it’s beneath contempt,’ said Ellen Silbergeld, a professor of environmental health science at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Health.

State Del. Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who has specialized in lead paint issues, said any weakening of lead paint laws would take the state back ‘way backwards.’

‘If that’s the direction that we’re headed in for regulatory reform — making us a business-friendly state but a citizen-unhealthy state — that’s outrageous,’ he said.

Look, I’m all for being a troublemaker and not towing the party line, but only if I’ve checked and re-checked that I’m correct. It seems to me that the housing secretary didn’t check to make sure his statement would stand up to scrutiny, and even Gov. Hogan’s office rejected his statements (from the same article):

“Asked for comment, a spokesman for the governor said Holt’s comments did not represent administration policy.

‘The secretary has never spoken to the governor about it,’ said Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer. ‘Our administration is committed to the highest safety standards possible.'”

And the secretary was wrong about landlords required to provide housing until a child with lead poisoning turns 18 (from the same article):

“Ruth Ann Norton, a longtime advocate for reducing lead poisoning, said Holt appears to be confused about what Maryland law requires landlords to do. She said there is no requirement that they provide shelter until an exposed child turns 18, only that they provide safe housing while lead abatement is under way at the original residence.”

But why check to make sure you’re right, right?

Back in 2011, the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene got into hot water because the state laboratory deleted a bunch of lab results from lead poisoning screening. That cost the director of the laboratory his job because of the political ramifications, not because anything necessarily wrong or illegal was done. (Lab records can only be kept so long, but the political and practical sensitivity of lead poisoning litigation should have factored into the equation of whether or not to delete those records.)

Freddie Gray, the man whose death in police custody triggered a series of protests and a riot in Baltimore, was diagnosed with lead poisoning as a child:

“The life of Freddie Gray Jr., who died Sunday from a severe spinal cord and other injuries sustained in police custody, had a beginning as tragic, in a way, as his end.

As children, he and his two sisters were found to have damaging lead levels in their blood, which led to multiple educational, behavioral and medical problems, according to a lawsuit they filed in 2008 against the owner of a Sandtown-Winchester home they rented for four years.

With so much of its housing stock predating laws banning lead in paint, Baltimore continues to wrestle with the after-effects on thousands of children who have inhaled or ingested the toxic metal.”

Of course, the landlord blamed those behavior problems on other things:

“While the property owner countered in the suit that other factors could have contributed to the children’s deficits — poverty, frequent moves and their mother’s drug use, for example — the case was settled before going to trial in 2010. The terms of the settlement are not public.”

Blame the mother… Sounds familiar, right? But what about the claim that lead poisoning leads to crime in general and violent crime in particular?

Scientists have known for a long time that lead changes the brain on a chemical and structural level. More recently, researchers have used brain imaging and case histories to more closely correlate lead poisoning and criminal behavior:

“Scars left by lead have had significant consequences for the study participants and their communities. As children, they struggled in school more than those who had not been exposed. As teens, they committed crimes more frequently, University of Cincinnati researchers reported.

‘What we found — and continue to find — is that lead sowed the seeds of their future,’ said Kim Dietrich, a neuropsychologist who has been following the group of nearly 300 people since they were born in the late 1970s. ‘It isn’t conducive to behavior we associate with normal development, making smart decisions and success.'”

The story of lead paint and lead poisoning in American homes is very old, and it has left a lasting impact in many places. Some of those places have been affected by a conflagration of many things. In places like Baltimore, you have a combination of very poor and disenfranchised people living in poorly built or poorly kept housing in the middle of food deserts. Add to that crime and institutionalized discrimination (and many times outright racism), and you already have a very bad environment for children to grow. Lead poisoning only exacerbates the problem.

I'm a doctoral candidate in the Doctor of Public Health program at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health. All opinions posted here are my own, of course, and they do not necessarily reflect the opinions of my school, employers, friends, family, etc. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

2 thoughts on “Would mothers poison their children with lead for free housing? Maryland’s housing secretary thinks so

  1. Wow, just wow. Lead paint was banned over thirty five years ago, it is amazing to think this may still be an issue. How bad is the paint peeling in some of those buildings? And if they have peeling paint, what other issues are wrong with the building? Leaky plumbing? Decayed floor joists? Does the heating system still work? Are the refrigerators and stoves functional? What about the wiring? How many power strips and extension cords are plugged into old outlets without any grounding?

    What does Baltimore do with slumlords? I hope their record is better than Seattle. There has been an issue with one notorious guy for several years. It hits home since many of his houses were near my kids’ public high school (which was recently beautifully remodeled). Yeah, we weren’t happy when federal agents raided one of the homes due to illegal machine gun sales (oh, and one of my daughter’s preschool classmates was a grandchild of the man and lived in the same triplex! Um, the family was “interesting”). Well, finally the city is trying to take some actions with fines. Woohoo.

    Back to lead: I realized many many years ago that I may have been exposed to lead paint when we scraped and repainted a house we bought in 1981. Fortunately we used a wet solvent on most of it, so very little became airborne. Plus it was all gone and repainted by the time the first child arrived in that house in 1988.

    There was some asbestos wrapping on some heating pipes, but they were painted over several times. It was best just to leave them alone and not cause any to go into the air just to remove them.

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    • It’s a little worse, lead paint has been banned for 38 years.
      In the house I lived in with my parents until I was 8, I’m sure that lead paint was present – that was long before the ban. Our home outside of the city from age 8 onward always had freshly painted surfaces, no peeling was allowed.
      From what I’ve seen driving through Baltimore, when x95 was screwed up, maintenance on housing isn’t optimal. To put it mildly. Reminds me of much of Philly, where I am from.
      Let’s hope that the governor asks Mr Holt to find another job. It appears that he’s ill suited for his current position.

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