WASHINGTON — The city of Durham has won a $2.4 million federal grant to alleviate lead poisoning among low-income children living in private housing, the Department of Housing and Urban Development announced Friday.

Durham was the only city in North Carolina to receive a portion of the $50 million awarded for lead hazard control nationwide.

“It is really a danger that is not well known, and should be well known,” HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo said. “And there is no reason why, as we head to the year 2000, that our children should suffer from a mistake we made three decades ago.”

The grant would help children under age 6 who are exposed to high levels of lead in the home. Children’s nervous systems are keenly vulnerable to disorders caused by high blood lead levels, such as brain damage, reduced attention span, hearing loss, stunted growth, learning problems and behavior difficulties.

HUD estimates that 5 percent of all children between the ages of 1 and 5 have lead poisoning, and 16 percent of children in low-income households suffer from the problem. In some areas of
the Northeast, as many as 1 in 3 children have lead poisoning.

“What’s even more frightening is when you know that lead poisoning is irreversible,” Cuomo said.

“The image in my mind was that a child has to pick up a paint chip as though it were a potato chip and chew on it to get lead poisoning,” Cuomo said. “In fact, that’s not the case. Paint can chip, turn to dust on the floor that gets on children’s hands or floats in the air that they breathe.”

Lead-paint poisoning is a frequent problem in houses that were built before 1978. Lead had been used as a pigment in paint until about 1960, when health officials recognized that children who inhaled dust or played with chips from the paint were becoming sick, said Ken Giles of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Lead was still used at lower levels as a drying agent until 1978, when its use in household paints was banned. But it continues to be a problem in older homes across the country, he said.

Kendall Abernathy, director of the Durham Department of Housing and Community Development, said the city has more than 55,000 housing units that were built before 1979.

“That doesn’t mean that all of those houses have lead paint in them, but the potential for a larger problem is there,” Abernathy said. “Hopefully, with this grant we’ll be able to determine if we do.”

Durham will use the three-year grant to identify and rehabilitate about 105 at-risk homes and clean another 600. It also will be used to develop research and education programs and to train about 70 inspectors, with a portion of the money going to the health department to inspect home daycare centers.

“That will not solve all of what we think is our problem,” Abernathy said, “but it will go a long way toward doing so.”

Abernathy said she expects HUD to continue to fund the effort in the future, and, if necessary, Durham plans to apply for more aid. HUD officials said eliminating lead hazards from a single home could cost anywhere from $1,000 to $15,000, depending upon the level of deterioration. The average cost per unit for the areas awarded grants is about $7,000, said Ellis Goldman of HUD’s lead-hazard control program.

Last year, Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill who serves on the House Appropriations Committee that oversees HUD funding, advocated an increase in federal spending for lead hazard control from $10 million to $70 million in the fiscal year 1999 budget. The president has asked that that figure be maintained for fiscal 2000.

The Research Triangle Institute also received a grant of nearly $170,000 on Friday, which is limited to research efforts for lead hazards.

Although Durham received the fifth-largest sum from HUD for lead hazard control, just how serious the blood lead level problem is in the city remains unknown, said Marc Meyer, an environmental health specialist for Durham. Meyer said Durham County has long been at the forefront of efforts to protect low-income children from lead poisoning.

Screening from 1994 to 1996 showed very few children in the county with high levels of lead in their blood, he said. And an October 1998 memo from the state health department urged more vigorous screening for all North Carolina children, but it also identified areas that had fewer problems, he said.

Every one of the zip codes for Durham fell into the low-risk category. Given the abundance of aging housing units in the city, Meyer said he and other officials were skeptical of the state’s figures.

“The Durham County Health Department and the community at this point is not comfortable with the state’s data,” Meyer said. “We want a better sampling to make sure that we hit all the areas that have older houses, because there are so many in Durham.

“The bottom line is, we may not have high-risk numbers, but we’d rather be no-risk,” he said.

Meyer said part of the problem in identifying at-risk homes is that many people don’t realize the lead hazard exists, or don’t perceive it to be a problem for their children. The grant secured on Friday will help alleviate that problem through educational programs.

Ken Giles of the Consumer Product Safety Commission said residents can watch for problems in their own homes. If paint is chipping or frayed, particularly around window panes, Giles recommends homeowners take a sample to a laboratory that offers testing to have it analyzed, rather than relying on over-the-counter home testing kits. He said such labs often are listed in
the Yellow Pages.

Problem areas can then be painted over or sealed, but, Giles said “it’s not enough just to repaint a pane. If you’re going to do it yourself, which I don’t recommend, don’t do it wrong. Painting over leaded areas, particularly windows that are bumped open and shut all the time, can just scatter more lead dust and cause more problems if it’s done incorrectly.”

But while it is a good idea for residents to keep an eye on paint and watch for chipping, they should not assume a home built before 1978 definitely needs to address lead problems, Giles cautioned.

“If it’s in good shape, leave it alone,” he said.

To learn more about lead-hazard control, request a copy of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission’s pamphlet, “Protect Your Family from Lead in Your Home.” Write to: U.S. CPSC, Washington, D.C. 20207, send an e-mail to: info@cpsc.gov, or go online at http://www.cpsc.gov.

Herald-Sun, The (Durham, NC) Date: February 6, 1999 Page: B1 Copyright, 1999, The Durham Herald Company