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 Article of Interest - Lead Poisoning Series

For more articles on disabilities and special ed visit www.bridges4kids.org

 

This series of investigative articles and editorials about Baltimore's lead poisoning epidemic and its underlying causes is a great example of crusading investigative reporting. This series also includes articles that describe the dramatic responses of state and local officials to the problem. The reporting is extremely high-quality, accurate and hard-hitting. 

$50 Million Pledged to fight lead poisoning (Jan. 29, 2000)

Lawmakers back bill on lead paint (Jan. 28, 2000)

No easy route to lead-safe houses (Jan. 24, 2000)

Governor promises city more money to fight lead (Jan. 22, 2000)

Where is leadership on lead poisoning? (Jan. 21, 2000)

Lead's lethal legacy engulfs young lives (Jan. 20, 2000)

Simple fix: conscientious landlords (Jan. 20, 2000)
 

$50 million pledged to fight lead poisoning
Glendening, O'Malley outline campaign to protect city children; `A moral obligation'

By Timothy B. Wheeler and Jim Haner
Sun Staff

Vowing to end the scourge of childhood lead poisoning in Maryland, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley pledged yesterday to pour $50 million over the next three years into a major new effort to rid the city of dilapidated housing contaminated with lead-based paint.

The governor and mayor outlined a three-pronged campaign at a crowded State House news conference, promising to strengthen enforcement of laws, expand testing of children and provide property owners with grants to eliminate lead-paint hazards from apartments and homes.

"Let us not mince words: Our children are suffering," said Glendening, who added that he will ask the General Assembly to authorize $5.2 million a year in new state funds for the effort. The money would be added to the $5.6 million in state and federal funds now being spent on the problem.

"We are going to attack this problem more aggressively, more effectively and more efficiently than we ever have in the past," said O'Malley.

The city will earmark $6 million in federal funds for the lead effort this year and will attempt to continue that level of funding for the next two years, the mayor said.

Both officials said they were moved to act by a series of articles in The Sun that revealed how children are being systematically poisoned in decrepit rowhouses held in corporate shells by slum landlords, some of whom have been implicated in dozens of cases.

In announcing the plan, the governor mentioned Kyle Bridges, a Baltimore 12-year-old whose inability to read and do math is attributed in part to his repeated lead poisoning in a succession of east-side rental homes.

"When we know what the problem is and what must be done, how can we turn our back on Kyle and all the other children who suffer along with him?" the governor asked. "We, all of us, have a moral obligation to come together and begin to solve this problem."

Joining the two at the news conference was U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Carol M. Browner, who promised federal help publicizing lead hazards in Maryland and enforcing the federal law requiring disclosure of the presence of lead paint whenever a housing unit changes hands.

"It is my strong hope that the day will come when we will all be able to say, `Lead poisoning? That was a problem of the past,' " Browner said.

More than 7,000 children are exposed to lead paint dust and chips in Baltimore each year, and 1,200 are poisoned, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

They account for about 85 percent of the cases reported in the state annually, placing Baltimore among the most perilous cities in the nation for children, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Most of the victims are poor, black children living in the inner-city neighborhoods Park Heights, Sandtown-Winchester and Middle East.

More than two of every five children poisoned statewide come from those neighborhoods, health department records show. But little has been done to target the city and state enforcement efforts there until now.

Glendening and O'Malley pledged to focus their immediate prevention and cleanup efforts on those neighborhoods, though the governor said enforcement would be strengthened statewide.

Under their plan, an extra $1 million a year would be spent on enforcement. The money would allow the state to hire five inspectors, triple the number of homes checked and employ two assistant attorneys general to triple the numbers of violators prosecuted.

The money also would allow the city to hire as many as six inspectors, doubling the current staff, according to Peter L. Beilenson, the city health commissioner.

The state's commitment of $3.5 million a year to remove lead-paint hazards would provide grants of up to $8,500 to landlords or homeowners in the three targeted neighborhoods. Landlords would have to pay 20 percent of the abatement costs. Homeowners would be eligible for full state funding.

The abatement money should remove lead-paint hazards from 400 rental units a year in the three neighborhoods, said Raymond A. Skinner, state housing secretary. His agency has financed cleanups of 500 homes citywide in the past five years.

Maryland's lead-paint law is generally considered one of the strictest in the nation, but the state hasn't provided adequate funds to enforce it.

The heart of the law is a requirement that landlords register their properties with the state Department of the Environment, clean up lead-paint hazards and submit to safety inspections before renting to families with children.

But with only five state inspectors and one part-time prosecutor to enforce the law, compliance has lagged far behind what was envisioned by lawmakers.

Fewer than half of the rental units in the state are registered, fewer than 100 scofflaw landlords are prosecuted annually, and eight of 10 children poisoned are found to be living in uncertified houses.

In Baltimore, where the city Health Department acts on the state environmental agency's behalf, the picture is much the same.

Operating on a budget of less than $1 million a year, six inspectors have struggled to police nearly 70,000 rental units built before 1951 -- when lead paint was banned in the city -- without a prosecutor assigned to their cases until recently.

Glendening and O'Malley said money alone will not solve the problem. They called for legislation and regulations to help alert the public to lead-poisoning hazards and to curb abuses by landlords.

O'Malley said the city will seek state legislation requiring that a notice be posted in every rental unit built before 1950 stating that it complies with the state law. The notices would assure tenants that cleanups required by law have been performed.

The city will introduce a bill aimed at preventing landlords from evading cleanup orders. Denise Duval, assistant city housing commissioner, said some landlords are transferring properties to corporations, then denying responsibility for abating lead-paint hazards.

Those bills will join a flurry of proposals being prepared in Annapolis, including legislation that would hold paint manufacturers responsible and provide abatement tax credits for homeowners and landlords.

Yesterday's announcement drew praise from legislators and advocates for children's health. Spokesmen for Baltimore's largest landlords endorsed the calls for tougher enforcement of existing laws.

"It shows a commitment from the governor's office that was super and a commitment and energy level from the mayor that we haven't seen in a while," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat.

"It's a tremendous first step," said Ruth Ann Norton, director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. Her group has proposed an $80 million program aimed at eliminating lead poisoning statewide in the next 20 years. Glendening has directed a state task force to study that proposal.

"We agreed to the law, and we think everybody should be doing it," said Charles A. Piccinini, a board member of the Property Owners of Greater Baltimore, which represents most of the city's largest landlords. "The ones that aren't should be sought out and fined."

"It's a good thing, what the governor did today," said Bessie Smith, 50, Kyle Bridges' grandmother.

"Maybe now, people will take this problem seriously. Maybe it will help all the sick children of Baltimore."

Originally published on Jan 29 2000

Lawmakers back bill on lead paint
Rosenberg, Hoffman support proposal to make lawsuits easier; Cleanup to be announced; Manufacturers would share damages based on Md. sales

By Timothy B. Wheeler and William F. Zorzi Jr.
Sun Staff

Two Baltimore lawmakers are backing legislation that would make it easier for victims of lead poisoning to sue manufacturers of lead-based paint for damages.

The bill -- which would hold paint manufacturers responsible for harming thousands of Maryland children based on how much lead-based paint they sold in the state -- would help Baltimore attorney Peter G. Angelos pursue two lawsuits he has filed against the pigment industry.

Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg said yesterday that he is drafting a bill that would allow "market-share liability" claims against lead-paint manufacturers in Maryland courts. The Baltimore Democrat said he agreed to introduce the bill at the urging of John A. Pica, an attorney in the Angelos firm.

Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, said she is willing to co-sponsor the legislation.

"I think on the lead-paint issue, we've ignored the fact that lead paint companies knew of the dangers," the Baltimore Democrat said.

Market-share liability is a legal theory under which the makers of lead-based paint would share in all the damages caused by the toxic metal based on their sales, even if it can't be proved that a particular product poisoned a specific child.

Advocates for lead-poisoned children say such a law would significantly improve the chances of winning claims against paint manufacturers. Industry representatives have denied knowingly harming children and have suc-

cessfully fought market-share claims in Maryland and elsewhere.

Word of the proposed legislation comes as Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley prepare to announce a combined effort to reduce the health scourge that has troubled the city for decades.

Tony White, O'Malley's press secretary, said the announcement today will include a city commitment of $6 million in federal money toward lead abatement.

Carol M. Browner, administrator of the federal Environmental Protection Agency, also is expected to attend the announcement, but it was unclear last night whether new federal money will be coming from the EPA.

The market-share legislation would complement government efforts, legislators said, by generating funds from private sources for costly housing cleanups.

"If there's some way to create a pot of money to detoxify this housing, then some of the money should come from the people who manufactured that paint," Hoffman said.

Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, chairman of the city delegation, said he is considering signing onto such a bill. "They have some very, very, very compelling information as to who knew what and when about the whole lead paint problem," McFadden said.

There have been many successful lawsuits against individual landlords on behalf of lead-poisoned children, but paint and pigment producers have successfully fended off attempts to hold them responsible for the damage caused by their products.

Courts have required plaintiffs to prove which manufacturer's paint poisoned a particular child, a legal burden that has proven insurmountable.

Angelos filed two lawsuits in September alleging that paint manufacturers conspired for more than a half-century to hide the hazards of lead paint and to defeat restrictions on its use.

One suit, a class action filed on behalf of a million Maryland homeowners, seeks compensation for the cost of removing lead-based paint from their houses. Another seeks damages for six Baltimore children who suffered severe lead poisoning from 1995 to 1998, allegedly because of exposure to paint and lead from gasoline.

The suit seeks $5 million in compensatory damages and $10 million in punitive damages from 15 makers of lead paint, lead pigment and gasoline additives.

Lead was an ingredient in most paint used in the United States until it was banned by federal law in 1978. Baltimore outlawed its use in houses in 1951.

Pica said that although Angelos believes he can prove that paint manufacturers conspired, he probably will amend his lawsuits to include the market-share claim if the legislation is approved.

"They don't deserve any kind of protection," Pica said of paint manufacturers. "They should be in jail."

Market-share legislation figured in the recent indictments of Baltimore Del. Tony E. Fulton and Annapolis lobbyist Gerard E. Evans. Federal prosecutors have accused the two of engaging in a "bell-ringing" scheme in which Fulton allegedly threatened to introduce such legislation so that Evans could collect fees from paint manufacturers to fight the proposal.

Rosenberg has a long history of advocating solutions to the lead-poisoning problem.

"This isn't the first time I've worked on legislation that says the paint industry should be held to account," Rosenberg said. He unsuccessfully introduced a bill several years ago that would have taxed paint sales to help pay for abatement of lead-paint hazards in homes.

Originally published on Jan 28 2000

No easy route to lead-safe houses
Sun editorial: A classic challenge to Maryland's role as protector of public health.

LET NO ONE be misled.

State government must cover the very significant cost of any credible effort to curb the epidemic of lead paint poisoning in Baltimore. The job cannot be left to poor families or to private philanthropic foundations or to a poverty-stricken city. The scope of the problem is too great.

Nor can it be done on the cheap. Enforcement alone will be futile -- as years of lax enforcement efforts and a model set of lead paint abatement laws should have made abundantly clear.

No one should mistake a few more inspectors for a real campaign against lead dust, peeling and chipping paint. Children will go on breathing it even as citations are written and court dates set, postponed, missed -- or even if a landlord is convicted.

The big money is needed for massive lead abatement efforts -- tax credit incentives for landlords, massive window replacement drives and education. In many cases, perhaps, families will have to be relocated while houses are made lead safe; some may need permanent relocation so houses can be demolished.

The area's private foundations are helping: They'll pay for a quick study of costs and a basic plan of action, for example; or they'll chip in for an outreach program designed to let pregnant women know the perils of lead for infants and helping the women find suitable housing.

The state may insist that any financial commitment -- as yet unspecified -- be accompanied by help from other quarters. It may. But the problem is simply too big and too urgent to leave it to private foundations and charities to do most of the work.

A historic moment could be at hand -- a striking legacy -- if the will can be found to seize it. The Sun's Jim Haner has shown where the pockets of toxic lead are most pronounced. Health officials say they can see now where to focus their efforts.

Baltimore has a dedicated cadre of advocates fighting against childhood lead poisoning. They know what to do about it. But they have been no match for the forces marshaled by landlords.

Any public figure who wishes to be seen as the liberator of poisoned children could step forward now.

Who will be the one?

No one expects a global assault in a single year. But Maryland has done more for the blue crab and the oyster than it has for the Baltimore babies who live in lead-infested houses.

Originally published on Jan 24 2000

Governor promises city more money to fight lead
Clergy, legislators say action against poisonings is overdue

By Jim Haner And Timothy B. Wheeler
Sun Staff

Gov. Parris N. Glendening arrived in Baltimore yesterday on a fact-finding mission into the city's epidemic of lead-poisoned children and came face-to-face with its pervasiveness at Union Baptist Church.

Addressing community leaders at the west-side sanctuary, Glendening pledged to send "a substantial sum of money" to bolster the city Health Department's shoestring enforcement budget. Then, he stepped into the crowd to chat.

When he reached the Rev. Douglas Miles, the governor got an earful.

"I told him two of my grandchildren have been lead poisoned in rental houses in this city," Miles said. "So I take this very personally."

Miles is the president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, an organization of 200 pastors with a total of 20,000 parishioners, many of them residents of three "hot zone" neighborhoods that produce half the state's lead-poisoning cases.

It is axiomatic in Baltimore that when the alliance speaks, politicians listen. And the alliance did not speak alone.

"I am so angry, I can barely contain myself," said Democratic state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden of Baltimore, who brought a subcommittee meeting on education to a standstill in Annapolis on Thursday after reading a story in The Sun describing how children are being systematically poisoned by lead in slum houses in his east-side district.

"These are my kids we're talking about, my constituents,and it is not lost on anyone that they are also poor and predominantly African-American. The time for talking about this over. We want action from this governor, now."

Miles said: "Very definitely, we will be holding the governor to accounts on this. Now is the moment. Now is the time. It's past time, in fact. But the newspaper somehow seems to have finally gotten everyone's attention.

"This has been devastating the lives of our children for too long, particularly our African-American children. Stopping it is a question of will. It's a question of money."

That assessment comes one week before Glendening and Mayor Martin O'Malley are scheduled to announce what has been promised to be a sweeping package of reforms to stop the poisoning of 1,200 children annually in the city.

An additional 7,000 are exposed to the toxin, which inhibits brain, nerve and bone development, making it difficult for children to learn or control aggressive impulses, and triggering millions of dollars in health, education and criminal justice costs to taxpayers each year, experts say.

But the state has given the city less than $1 million a year to pay for a small enforcement squad of six inspectors to uphold Maryland's regulations against landlords who control thousands of slum units in Baltimore.

This week, Glendening's staff floated a preliminary plan to send the city what would amount to a $200,000 increase to help deal with a decade-old backlog of 1,100 unprosecuted cases.

Echoing children's advocates, doctors and some landlords, one city housing official called that "anemic." The state has a budget surplus of $1 billion, but new lead exposure cases are being reported by city doctors to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention at the rate of more than 500 a month.

Yesterday, the Maryland Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning -- the state's largest provider of assistance to families of lead poisoned children -- presented a budget to Glendening's staff asking for $80 million over the next few years.

The money would pay for the hiring of inspectors, two dedicated prosecutors and assistance to cash-strapped landlords for the repair and replacement of degraded windows and doors, the greatest source of poisonings.

"That is probably asking too much from this governor at this time," O'Malley said last night. "But $10 million would be a good start as we work to come up with a more comprehensive plan. I think the governor clearly understands the urgent need to do something about these killer houses."

By the time Glendening returned to Annapolis, the earlier aid package envisioned by the administration -- a total of $1 million statewide, including the $200,000 to the city -- appeared to be under review.

"The governor and the mayor are continuing to work on a specific targeted plan to begin addressing some of the issues concerning families living in these lead-infested houses," said spokesman Michael Morrill. "The details are being worked on as we speak."

But the legislature has only begun to speak.

"We're going to push the governor to put more money into this effort," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee.

Hoffman said she hoped that the O'Malley administration can present the governor with a plan for tackling the city's most lead-riddled neighborhoods in time to get extra state funding for housing cleanups when the governor presents his supplemental budget in the coming months.

"We haven't had the money for enforcement," Hoffman said. "Baltimore City has had minimal enforcement of its housing code."

But Hoffman noted that the failure to eliminate lead poisoning has aggravated the city's other ills, notably the poor performance of inner-city children in school.

"We're focusing now on having children entering schools ready to learn," she said. "If you're lead poisoned, you're not ready."

Del. Samuel I. "Sandy" Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who has been grappling with the lead-poisoning issue for more than a decade, said he plans to introduce a bill providing tax credits to landlords and homeowners for eliminating lead-paint risks in homes and child-care facilities. Money, not new legislation, is what's needed, Rosenberg said.

"You can inspect [housing] before kids get sick," he said. "You don't need the law changed."

Support for that proposition came from a seemingly unlikely quarter yesterday, as the Baltimore Property Owners Association -- the state's landlord lobby -- threw its support behind stricter enforcement rather than new regulations.

"We have been screaming at the state for years to provide more money for enforcement, for inspectors, for relocating affected families," said Sam Polakoff, president of the group. "Our membership has spent millions of dollars on this problem, while one industry after another has bailed out.

"The gasoline companies, the paint manufacturers, they've all ducked out. We're the only ones left, and we can't possibly clean up the entire mess out of our own pockets. Meanwhile, we have all sorts of irresponsible parties buying up houses, getting into our business and poisoning kids -- and not a damn thing is being done about them."

After four years of often-contentious negotiations between doctors, property owners and children's advocates, the General Assembly enacted a law in 1994 aimed at cutting down the state's rate of poisonings.

The law, which took affect four years ago, requires landlords to register their properties and reduce lead-paint risks in return for protection from lawsuits. Lauded at the time as one of the strictest regulatory schemes in the country, it has accomplished little.

Maryland still ranks among the most toxic states in America, poisoning children at a rate more than 15 times the national average. And more than eight out of 10 of those children live in Baltimore's slum neighborhoods.

Rosenberg, Polakoff and the city's pediatric doctors agree that the reason for the continued epidemic is the state's near-total failure to enforce the law, taking little action against landlords who fail to register their properties with the Department of the Environment.

Estimates are that more than half of all rental units are unregistered -- and more than 80 percent of lead-poisoned children are traced to those addresses.

"In large measure, there's been no hammer," Rosenberg said, mainly because of the state's failure to provide more than minimal funding to city health officials.

Del. Lisa A. Gladden of Baltimore, a Democrat and a public defender, said she was saddened to read how young children are still being poisoned in dilapidated rental housing.

"I know these folks," she said of the tenants. "I've seen these houses, and I'm telling you, this is criminal. This is unfair."

Gladden said the continuing toll of lead is all the more outrageous because "the solution is so easy and the consequences so great. The treatments for these kids are painful, and they don't necessarily help, so you add to a whole generation that is being shortchanged."

She called for a joint campaign by the state and city to crack down on "landlords who are not conscientious" or to demolish lead-riddled housing that is too rundown to rehabilitate.

She said she plans to introduce a bill requiring public schools to eliminate poisoning risks in older classrooms that may have lead-based paint on walls and woodwork.

Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's County Democrat, said he has asked for a briefing on the poisoning problem before the House Environmental Matters Committee, on which he serves. The panel wrote the 1994 law.

"This is like every other health issue in the state of Maryland," he said. "We let it get to the point where the bomb has already dropped, and then we go in and try to clean up the mess. If we act progressively and try to [fix] the problem, we spend less in the end."

Miles said: "Behind all the rules, and all the regulations and all the lobbying by the landlords groups is the plain fact that the state has continued to allow slumlords to rent out dangerous houses without regard for the safety of young human lives.

"The time to change that is now."

Originally published on Jan 22 2000

Where is leadership on lead poisoning?
Sun editorial: Maryland stands now as an accomplice in neglect of lead-threatened kids.

SUPPOSE the crippling scourge of polio rose again in Ruxton, Roland Park, Potomac and other enclaves of power and privilege.

Would the state of Maryland intervene for those kids? Would there be any higher priority for the use the state's $1 billion surplus? Could any tinpot committee chairman in Annapolis get in the way of needed legislation?

Would Parris N. Glendening, who wishes to be known as the education governor, fail to act expeditiously? And what of Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, who wishes to succeed Mr. Glendening?

Surely, action would be swift and well-financed. Think of the task forces marshaled to confront Pfiesteria.

Similarly, war would have been declared by now if lead poisoning were a problem of the well-to-do. Armies would have been mustered and battle plans unveiled.

Not so with the ruinous plague of lead paint poisoning in Baltimore, where children are repeatedly dosed by lead in houses that could be made nearly safe with the expenditure of relatively small amounts of money. Windows -- the major culprit in lead poisoning -- could be replaced in many inner-city houses for roughly $1,500.

Responsible landlords did precisely that with their houses, but as Sun reporter Jim Haner shows, major slumlords aren't responsible. They hire lobbyists to tell legislators that lead paint is too expensive to abate, and that pursuing landlords will drive them out of the market, leaving abandoned, unlivable hovels behind.

Despite that shameful argument, Maryland now has a strong set of enforcement laws and regulations. But these laws have gone unenforced. Not enough inspectors. Not enough money to hire them.

Not enough leadership.

For years, Baltimore's mayors failed to make lead abatement a priority. So did the city's health commissioner and City Council members.

Mr. Glendening says he is appalled to see so many Baltimore children in such well-defined neighborhoods are suffering the brutal impact of lead on physical, emotional and mental well-being. He says a plan is coming.

It needs to come now.

Where was outrage about lead in the governor's State of the State address this week? Why was the need for action missing from his speech? He had the bully pulpit. And he has the resources. Everyone wants a piece of the state's $1 billion surplus, to be sure, and the poor kids of East Baltimore don't make campaign contributions or have highly paid lobbyists. The governor, the lieutenant governor and Mayor Martin O'Malley must speak -- and act -- for them.

Children from the privileged enclaves of the state would not be so easily abandoned.

Lead from degraded paint -- sent into the atmosphere primarily when old windows are opened and closed -- leaches into bone, tooth and brain. It stays for a lifetime. If treated early enough, the damage can be minimized. But kids in East Baltimore "hot zones" are treated and returned to the same killer houses.

Who hasn't wondered why almost 20 percent of city school students require special education? This pervasive -- and preventable -- poisoning may help explain the phenomenon.

Mr. Glendening and the General Assembly have a splendid opportunity to act now. They have the surplus. They have public outrage. People see the vulnerability of defenseless children. And several foundations are ready to jump in with substantial sums after the state shows its commitment.

The task will not be cheap. Mr. O'Malley has asked for $10 million to help relocate families from hazardous rowhouses. That's the crucial first step -- but it's only a first step.

Thousands of houses must be made lead safe. Some must be torn down. Some landlords need to be helped with detoxifying their property. Enforcement officers are needed to put meaning in the laws.

The necessary steps are well-known to the governor, the mayor and other interested parties, so waiting much longer for this or any other planning research is not necessary.

Billions of dollars in lost productivity would be restored, experts say, if the brain damage associated with lead poisoning were prevented. Prevention is the only cure. Money can buy that cure.

And you know it would have been there already if the epidemic raged in Ruxton, Roland Park or Potomac.

Originally published on Jan 21 2000

Lead's lethal legacy engulfs young lives
Epidemic: With poison in their blood, thousands of Baltimore's children contribute to unsettled classrooms and violent neighborhoods.

By Jim Haner
Sun Staff

Kyle Bridges lay down in the middle of McCulloh Street on his way to school last October. He rested his too-small head on his book bag. And he told his little brother to go on without him.

"I'm sick of living," his brother recalled him saying. "I'm just gonna wait here till a truck comes and runs me over. Don't worry, I just want to die."

Kyle can barely read a word more than three letters long. He cannot do math at all, not even two plus two. He was in special education, but nothing the teachers tried or said seemed to stick. He was a playground outcast at Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary School, Booker T. Washington Middle and Highlandtown Middle.

Ridiculed as a "retard," he would lapse into confused and embarrassed gibberish. Under stress, he was prone to lash out at other kids, his teachers, his grandmother. For as far back as anyone can remember, he has had an explosive temper.

Kyle is 12 years old. His small body is loaded with lead, ingested in a succession of East Baltimore slum houses toxic with peeling paint and dust.

"Lead is associated with most of the problems this child has had in his life," says Dr. Paul Law, Kyle's physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital's Harriet Lane children's clinic. "And it's certainly the most consistent and prominent feature of his personal history. It's all over his chart."

Nearly a decade after the General Assembly passed one of the strictest laws in the nation to prevent the lead poisoning of Maryland children, Kyle is among the first generation of kids who were supposed to benefit. He is also living proof of how badly the state has failed.

Maryland continues to rank among the most toxic states in America, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, with more than four times the national average of lead-exposed children and more than 15 times the rate of lead poisonings.

The vast majority of them live in the slums of Baltimore, where invisible lead paint dust hovers in the air they breathe and clings to their toys, pacifiers and bottles.

Once ingested, lead inhibits a child's ability to absorb iron, one of the basic building blocks of brain, nerve and bone development. It also stunts a broad range of chemical transmitters that affect hearing, sight and perception.

The resulting brain and nerve damage, experts say, can trigger a cascade of secondary effects that include learning disabilities, hyperactivity, increased aggression and a greater likelihood of criminal behavior. While treatment can reverse some damage, long-term exposure can cause lifelong deficits.

In Baltimore, lead exposure constitutes an epidemic that strikes more than 7,000 children every year and is a contributing factor in the city's crisis of violent crime, failing schools and disintegrating neighborhoods, experts say.

But Maryland spends less than $1 million a year on enforcement to prevent the chain reaction of side effects in children that costs taxpayers tens of millions of dollars in special education alone, according to a state advisory board estimate.

Chronically underfunded, understaffed and outmaneuvered by a cadre of mega-landlords who control thousands of substandard rowhouses through shell corporations, city and state health officials acknowledge that they have been unable to make even modest progress in blunting the scourge.

As the Assembly reconvened last week, children's advocates, Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Parris N. Glendening began formulating what will likely be the broadest push for reform of Maryland's lead enforcement system in years.

The pledge of reform followed a series of articles in The Sun last month that showed how dozens of children were poisoned by lead in slum houses owned by a web of more than 70 corporations linked to longtime city slumlord James M. Stein.

Officials have cited the case as symptomatic of a breakdown in enforcement at nearly every level of government. But a continuing review of state and city records by the newspaper reveals an even more troubling trend.

`Killer blocks'

In the poorest quarters of the city, children are being poisoned over and over at the same addresses. And some families have been rocked by successive poisonings as they have moved through rental houses in the same neighborhoods.

Further, some streets -- such as the 900 block of N. Patterson Park Ave. -- have become infamous in neighborhood lore as "killer blocks." On this one stretch of 40 Formstone dwellings, at least 16 children have been poisoned, among them Kyle Bridges.

"Over and over again, we see kids coming out of the same houses lead poisoned," says Dr. Charles I. Shubin, director of children's health and family care at Mercy Medical Center, which manages a caseload of about 8,000 lead-exposed children.

"One generation after another, we see the same addresses, the same blocks, the same neighborhoods, the same landlords. Our kids are being poisoned while we watch."

Echoing doctors throughout the city, Shubin states: "There has been an utter and complete failure to enforce basic laws to address this thoroughly recognized threat to public health. There's no mystery here. We know where this is happening, we know why."

Fully 85 percent of the lead-poisoning cases in the state occur in Baltimore, and more than half of those come out of three compact "hot zones," according to records from the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Nearly seven out of 10 children tested every year in the slum enclaves of Park Heights, Sandtown and Middle East have been exposed. Coincidentally, these neighborhoods are home to some of the city's poorest performing schools, its highest violent crime rates and its largest blocs of substandard rental housing.

"Lead is a big part of the action, unquestionably," says Dr. Herbert L. Needleman of the University of Pittsburgh Medical School and one of the nation's foremost experts on the effects of lead in children.

"In some populations, it may be the most important factor in determing a broad range of neuromotor, psychosocial and behavioral pathologies -- poor cognitive performance, hyperactivity and aggression being particularly well-established traits.

"It's a very potent metabolic poison."

And for poor children, Needleman notes, it can shackle them for life.

If diagnosed and treated early enough, middle-class children have a much greater likelihood of recovering from lead poisoning and returning to relatively normal levels of functioning between the ages of 5 and 10. But children lower on the socio-economic ladder are far more likely to be poisoned repeatedly and less likely to receive the same level of care.

"It can put them so far behind at the beginning of the race of life that they never make up the lost ground," Needleman says, "particularly as they deal with all the other pathologies in their environment -- crime, drugs, malnutrition, neglect, alcoholism -- and particularly if the exposure is persistent.

"Lead sets them up to fail across the board."

`Getting the lead'

Within a four-block area around a tan brick schoolhouse in East Baltimore, lead has been altering the course of young lives for more than 30 years.

Known as "Zombieland" for the pie-eyed addicts who frequent its thriving illegal drug markets, the neighborhood around Dr. Rayner Browne Elementary School has produced at least 200 confirmed cases of lead poisoning since 1970, a computer analysis of Health Department records shows.

Even that represents a bare fraction of the actual cases, doctors and tenants say.

Up and down Patterson Park Avenue, Eager Street, Biddle, Bradford, Chase, Milton, Montford and Port -- in one low-income household after another -- families have kept the tattered records of their poisoned children for decades.

They call it "getting the lead." Their shorthand for the phenomenon is a number.

In Zombieland, every child has a number.

The number is a test result, a measure of the micrograms of lead in a unit of a child's blood. Here, some children are tested two or three times a year as doctors at the nearby Harriet Lane Clinic and Kennedy Krieger Institute monitor their exposure in what is perhaps Baltimore's worst hot zone.

Under state law, every child who tests at a 10 gets reported to the Maryland Department of the Environment for inclusion in a national database of lead-exposed kids.

"Unfortunately," says Dr. John Andrews of Harriet Lane, "we don't get terribly excited by lead levels of 10 or 11 or 12 -- for the simple reason that we routinely see kids that high, and higher. It's a ubiquitous byproduct of life in this neighborhood.

"We also know that kids at this threshold can suffer serious, long-term effects if their exposure is sustained long enough. And our kids are being exposed every day. But we don't do anything for them, and we don't do enforcement at all, until they reach this arbitrary limit."

That limit, set by the state legislature, is a level 15. Only then is a child considered poisoned in Maryland. Only then are city health inspectors notified about a problem address. But there are only six of them. And their days are full of snarling dogs, rat-infested alleys, frightened tenants and landlords well-practiced at evasion.

"We know from what our inspectors tell us that a handful of landlords are responsible for 70 percent of the lead cases in the city," says Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, the city health commissioner. "The problem is that you have to pierce 16 corporations to figure out that the same guy owns 250 houses where kids have been hurt.

"Meanwhile, we're getting fresh reports every day at other addresses -- and the law requires us to follow up every one. We don't have anywhere near the staff or the funding to do any kind of consistent enforcement or targeting of repeat offenders. So they just go on poisoning kids, knowing we don't have the resources to stop them."

At levels above 25, children and their families are referred to specialists for intervention counseling.

At 35 to 40, where Kyle Bridges' peaked before his suicide attempt, they are candidates for hospital admission and a painful course of chemical injections known as "chelation" to strip the lead from their bodies.

And because most east-side families are at or below the poverty level, taxpayers foot much of the bill.

"Our priorities are completely backwards," says Dr. Ellen K. Silbergeld, a professor at the University of Maryland medical school and one of the nation's leading experts on lead toxicology. "Every time this has come before the legislature, we are told that a serious enforcement program to prevent this would be too expensive -- as if we aren't paying for this already.

"In terms of criminal justice, public health and schools, the costs are virtually incalculable at this point, not to mention what it does to the kids."

Poisoned children

Walk the streets of Zombieland, and that much quickly becomes clear.

Talk to Jeanette Alston, 52, who has toiled most of her life as a cook while struggling to raise her children and a succession of displaced nieces, nephews and neighborhood waifs in her rented rowhouse near Patterson Park and Chase.

Her son was poisoned here in 1979, records show, followed by two of her nieces in 1982.

"Leonardo was a 26," she recalls wearily. "The girls were both in the 30s -- very high."

The successive cases over such a relatively short period precipitated several frantic rounds of repairs by landlord Muriel Miller, who fixed or replaced most of the windows, floors and woodwork in the house as the city citations rolled in.

Ultimately, Miller and her husband would be cited in more than 15 lead cases at properties they owned, including three in the past five years.

"We tried to do the right thing," says Miller, now a widow in her 70s. "There's a lot of problems with other landlords, I know, but I don't think my husband and I were ever among them. We always did our best to take care of our properties. But it's expensive, very expensive, and a lot of these neighborhoods have only declined over the years."

For her part, Alston spent the past two decades running in and out of doctors' offices, teacher conferences and the Department of Social Services, tending to one lead-poisoned child in the family after another.

So why didn't she move?

"Same reason as everybody else in this neighborhood," Alston says. "I couldn't afford it. I was stuck, all the same financial problems people got all around here, you know? You struggle paycheck to paycheck, you're always behind in something. Gas bills. Electric bills. The kids got to eat, right?

"You think any of us would be living here if we had a choice?"

Over in the 2400 block of Eager St., hard by the railroad tracks that run behind Rayner Browne Elementary, Cliff Love has made at least one choice.

The 24-year-old warehouse worker and father of two stands in a mist of rain, sweeping his arm downhill toward a wall of boarded-up rowhouse shells. He recounts how landlords regularly cruise his block offering "no money down, rent-to-own" deals on their vacant properties.

"They think people are stupid," he spits. "They think we don't know what's happened in them houses. You buy one of them houses, your kids will be messed up for the rest of their lives."

Families have come and gone from this street, sometimes in tears, he says, driven off by high lead levels in their babies and deplorable living conditions. He doesn't know exactly how many kids have been poisoned, but in the oral history of the neighborhood, 2400 Eager is known as a killer block.

Health Department records show at least 19 children have been poisoned on this one stretch of Eager Street.

The city citations reveal a rogue's gallery of repeat offenders that includes slumlord James Stein and one of his best customers, convicted drug dealer George A. Dangerfield Jr., who bought more than 30 slum houses from Stein on installment plans.

Corporations controlled by the pair have owned 2437 E. Eager for the past decade, when at least two children were poisoned at the address. Elsewhere in the city, records show, their more than 100 corporations have been implicated in the lead poisonings of more than 80 kids.

At Rayner Browne Elementary, Dangerfield's name is synonymous with lead. He owns more than a dozen substandard houses in the four blocks around the school, and his tenants' children have been coming here for speech therapy and learning disabilities for years.

Talk to parents outside the red schoolhouse door, and everyone knows his name and maybe has a friend or family member who rented from him.

Thomas Taylor, 32, a roofer and father of two, lived a couple of doors away from one of Dangerfield's houses on Collington Avenue and recalls neighbors complaining bitterly about the landlord. But it's par for the course on these streets, he shrugs.

"My little boy got a 16 when he was 11 months old," he says. "Every kid on our block, it seems, gets poisoned at one time or other. Every kid in the neighborhood gets the lead. Don't seem to matter who the landlord is, they're all bad in this part of town."

His son, Ka-ron, is now 7, a second-grader at Rayner Browne. He's doing well, his father says proudly, "when he's not acting up in class."

"Ever since he got the lead, he's been hyper -- like to drive me crazy sometimes," Taylor says. "He was on Ritalin for a while, but we're trying to get by without it now. I don't want him spending his whole life on drugs."

Ka-ron grins and darts for the door, waving goodbye to his father.

"Behave yourself in there, you hear!" his dad calls after him.

Classroom troubles

Inside the neat-as-a-pin school, the usual morning bedlam unfolds in the cafeteria under the watchful eye of Danette Murrill, who has spent most of her nine-year teaching career at Rayner Browne.

As energetic as an aerobics coach, the Morgan State University graduate and wife of a police officer serves as the instruction coordinator for the student body of 350 kids. She estimates that up to one in five children in the K-through-5 school has been poisoned by lead.

"They don't stay on task, they're very fidgety, they're uncooperative in class and they have great difficulty retaining information," Murrill says matter-of-factly. "As a teacher, it's very frustrating because you always have at least five or six of them in a class -- but you don't always know who they are."

Neither the state nor the city alerts the school district when a child is confirmed to be poisoned. As one result, there are no programs tailored to the particular needs of lead-poisoned kids. The most severe cases are routinely shuttled into the system's overburdened special education program. The rest remain on the rolls.

"There's no special designation for them," Murrill says. "There's no tracking in place to help us chart their progress. In fact, we usually only find out about their lead history when we have a major incident that requires parental intervention.

"We sit down with mom or dad, and they tell us: `Oh, Johnny has always been that way, ever since he got the lead.' I can't tell you how often we hear that. These kids have lots of issues -- drug abuse in the family, neglect, substandard living conditions. But the big one we hear about all the time from our parents is the lead poisoning."

On average, the school copes with five or six major classroom disruptions a day that require another staff member to help the teacher restore order, Murrill says. And in the most violent classroom disruptions, lead is usually the common denominator.

"It affects not only the child involved," she says, "but everyone else in the room as well. You can forget about teaching until you get that kid out of the room. And then it takes another 15 minutes to get everybody else settled down and back on focus."

The upheaval is reflected in elementary school test scores, she believes, and not just at Rayner Browne, where nine out of 10 kids in the third grade fail the statewide reading exam.

Public records suggest a troubling coincidence.

In the four blocks around nearby Tench Tilghman Elementary, more than 150 children have been confirmed as lead poisoned since 1970. At the school, 19 out of 20 fail the statewide reading test. To the south, around Commodore John Rodgers Elementary, more than 100 kids have been poisoned -- and nine out of 10 third-graders fail the test.

"You see stories in the newspaper all the time about how poorly kids in the city schools are performing on state tests," Murrill says. "And everybody wants to look at programs and teaching methods. Nobody ever looks at what these kids are coming through the door with.

"Well, our kids are coming through the door with lead in their bloodstreams."

`Like a time bomb'

Kyle Bridges came through the door in 1994, loaded with lead.

Medical records at Johns Hopkins show that it had been in his bloodstream since he was a year old. And he had been continually exposed to peeling lead paint in a succession of slum rental houses in East Baltimore.

Built largely during the Civil War era with cheap materials and slapdash labor, the east side was a vast dormitory for the workers who streamed into Baltimore to operate what was then the largest unblockaded port, rail hub and packing center in the South.

So vital was Baltimore to the North's war effort that Union troops occupied the city throughout the conflict.

Over the past 40 years, that cut-rate housing stock has increasingly fallen under the ownership of speculators unwilling or unable to do the basic maintenance necessary to keep it livable. As a result, the crumbling structures have been shedding their toxic lead skin.

Kyle carries that legacy in his veins.

Throughout his early childhood, blood tests placed him consistently in the red zone.

March 15, 1991: a 36.

Six months later: a 32.

Four months later: a 24.

Three months later: a 27.

His head was undersized for his body, a familiar trait among poisoned kids because lead inhibits the body's ability to absorb iron, depriving the growing child of the minerals necessary for normal bone growth. Lead-poisoned kids tend to be shorter and smaller, Dr. Needleman says.

Kyle also had coordination problems and a lopsided gait, speech and hearing difficulties, and a propensity for explosive classroom outbursts. All are familiar traits, because lead impedes normal brain and nerve development, rendering children much more prone to frustration at their inability to master basic skills.

"Today," says Dr. Law, "we'd probably recommend him for chelation. With levels this high, over this prolonged a period, you're well into the stage when you'd expect to see serious and lasting deficits."

Kyle's grandmother, Bessie Smith, puts it differently.

"He was like a time bomb," she says. "The least little thing and he'd go off. He'd snap."

A courageous and very tired woman of 50, Smith does not shrink from telling her grandson's story. She volunteered to release all his records and to have his caretakers discuss his case.

"This has got to stop somewhere," she says, sitting in the living room of a tiny two-bedroom rowhouse in the 500 block of N. Collington Ave. that she shares with four grandchildren. "All these kids, too many kids, they're all over the streets dealing drugs and fighting and shooting each other. I'm afraid that's where Kyle is headed.

"I know that's where he's headed."

Smith acknowledges that her daughter, Kyle's mother, has a long history of drug abuse and used cocaine when pregnant. That's how Smith wound up with legal custody of Kyle and his brother, scraping to get by on $417 a month in public assistance in a house smaller than a mobile home.

The children have trailed behind her almost since birth, clinging to their grandmother as their only lifeline.

One by one, they have been poisoned by lead. Kyle was the first. It happened in the 900 block of N. Patterson Park Ave. in June 1989, Health Department records show.

"He was a 26 then," Smith recounts. "But that was just the beginning. It just went up and up and up from there. And he got worse and worse and worse."

Mood swings

Alarmed by blood test results that showed Kyle rapidly rising over a 30, Smith packed up the kids and moved to the 500 block of N. Duncan, then the 2400 block of E. Eager, then finally to Collington Avenue in 1993. By then, all four had been poisoned, and Kyle was riding a roller coaster of alarming lead tests.

It was lodged in his bones, almost certainly in his teeth. He had been disciplined or suspended from three schools. Last fall, he was arrested at Highlandtown Middle for showing up in the schoolyard while on suspension -- armed with a set of heavy steel bolt cutters.

"That's when they brought me into court to review my court-appointed guardianship," Smith says. "All I could think was, `Hallelujah, maybe now I'll finally get some help.' Then he tried to kill himself."

Alerted by Kyle's brother that the boy was lying in the middle of McCulloh Street, teachers from Booker T. Washington Middle School rushed out and dragged him from harm's way on Oct. 14.

In a matter of weeks, he had transited through one hospital, a state youth detention center and at least two hearings before being placed at St. Vincent's Center in Timonium shortly before Christmas. The sheltered special education school treats kids with serious learning disabilities and emotional problems.

There, he was assessed as a level-two suicide risk on a scale of three. Two medications were prescribed to control his aggressive behavior and mood swings.

"He's well aware that he's not like other kids," says Kenneth Young, director of the boys unit at St. Vincent's. "And he knows he's been poisoned. How much else he understands about why he acts the way he does is hard to say.

"He's got positives for multiple complexities -- prenatal substance abuse, lead poisoning, neglect, substandard housing. He's really overburdened with deficits, so it's difficult to say which factor is most responsible. But the most consistent, long-term problem he's had over the years is lead poisoning, no question.

"It makes all his other problems that much worse. And it very well could be the main cause."

`The same scenario'

On the 900 block of N. Patterson Park Ave. -- the killer block near Rayner Browne Elementary where Kyle and 15 other kids have been poisoned -- neighbors remember Miss Bessie and her grandkids and the terrible things that happened at 909.

"Miss Bessie's family got it bad," sighs Wayne Booker, 48, a cook at the Johns Hopkins medical school who often volunteers to board up vacant houses for civic groups. "But they aren't the only ones. There's been poisonings all up and down this block -- 911, 919, 920, 931. And it's all the same scenario.

"Landlords do some cosmetic work, family moves in, six months later, bang, the kids got the lead."

Across the street from Miss Bessie's old address, the next generation resides.

In a house full of cracked and peeling woodwork, shattered plaster, worn floors and exposed electrical wiring -- a house with a teeming rat warren in the back yard mounded with fresh droppings and gnawed chicken bones -- Tarik Williams' latest lead test results just came in last week.

His second birthday is four weeks away. His blood lead level now stands at 11, more than double what it was nine months ago. His case has been reported to the federal government. But he does not qualify for intervention under Maryland law.

Quite simply, Tarik does not have enough poison in his bloodstream yet.

"It's not at the level at which the state ordinarily qualifies him for services," says Dr. Andrews, Tarik's supervising physician at the Harriet Lane Clinic. "That his lead level is rising -- at this age and in this neighborhood -- is not unusual.

"That it has doubled in such a relatively short period of time is concerning. But the question we face is one of resources. We have a whole lot of kids who are worse off than him. And the state has made a decision that his case is not serious enough yet."

Last week, a private lead inspection paid for by The Sun confirmed hazardous lead conditions throughout the house.

"Over one-third of the components tested at this property contain elevated lead-based paint levels that were in poor paint condition," wrote Shannon Cavaliere of ARC Environmental Inc. in a final report to the newspaper. "These deteriorated lead-based paint surfaces are resulting in excessive lead-dust levels in the house (averaging between 4 and 22 times the state threshold limit)."

Cavaliere noted, however, that most of the lead was coming from grossly deteriorated window frames in the house.

The single most hazardous component in older homes, windows act as lead dust generators. As they are opened and closed, painted surfaces rub against each other, producing invisible clouds of toxic dust.

"For the cost of a couple thousand dollars in replacement windows, this house would be relatively safe for kids to live in," Cavaliere said. "It's a minor investment, and it saves a lot of grief down the road."

City records show there has already been much grief at the house.

At least one child was poisoned at 906 N. Patterson Park Ave. in 1982, before Tarik Williams' family moved in. The house was owned at the time by the same network of corporations that owns 909 N. Patterson Park Ave., directly across the street, where Kyle Bridges was poisoned in 1989.

Those corporations operate out of the same address at 214 E. 25th St., the headquarters for more than two dozen real estate firms that have been implicated in the lead poisonings of over 20 children, records show.

Associated with those corporations as an officer or agent -- and cited in at least five lead cases by name -- is Marc G. Medin, 45, of Pikesville, the owner of dozens of slum houses in the city and a sometime business associate of James M. Stein.

"I have nothing to say, OK?" Medin said when asked about his companies. "I'm going to go with that. I have nothing to say."

Sun research librarian Robert Schrott contributed to this article.

Originally published on Jan 20 2000 

Simple fix: conscientious landlords
Immediate home repairs and a youngster is saved

By Jim Haner
Sun Staff

In the heart of the east-side "hot zone" lies the 1200 block of N. Montford. Nine children who called it home have been poisoned by lead -- including Jevonte Sanders, 4.

He breathed the invisible lead dust generated by the opening and closing of old windows in his mother's rented rowhouse. He crawled in it. The stuff stuck to his clothes and bedding. In 1996, he was diagnosed.

"When the doctors first told me he had the lead, they said he could be brain damaged," recalls his mother, Delba Jones, 34. "Somebody tells you your baby could be handicapped for life, it's real scary."

But Jones was luckier than most mothers of lead-poisoned kids. Doctors detected it early. The Health Department intervened immediately. And her landlord was Mark Greggs.

Greggs relocated the family within days, tore out and replaced the windows and doors, and coated the interior in a thick, gleaming skin of new lead-free paint. One month later, Jones moved back in with her three boys, "so happy, surprised, I couldn't believe my eyes."

It was standard practice for Greggs, 46, and his business partner, Robert Paul. Even with 35 units between them, the two men qualified as a small operation by the standards of Baltimore, where landlords often own hundreds of houses.

Three months after his partner's death from a liver condition, Paul now manages the entire portfolio. And he says Greggs' swift action should stand as an example to others -- and as a simple prescription to stop the poisoning of Baltimore's children.

Because the real estate market in poorer neighborhoods is so depressed, even conscientious landlords cannot afford to make basic repairs because they often cost more than their property is worth. A modest grant program, Paul says, is needed to pay for the repair or replacement of windows and doors.

"We know that's the biggest danger," Paul says. "And it couldn't cost more than $1,500 a house to stop it. How hard is that to understand? We could stop the lead poisoning of thousands of kids for 1,500 bucks a house -- a few million dollars.

"It's a drop in the bucket compared to what this must be costing the taxpayers just to take care of these kids. Hello? Legislature? Governor? Is anybody out there?"

A relatively small group of large-scale landlords poison scores of children every year and control the bulk of houses in the city's worst enclaves. By assigning inspectors and prosecutors to target repeat offenders, poisonings could be quickly reduced.

"I've made a comfortable living and I only own 25 houses," Paul says. "But it's hard work to do it right. And these greedy bastards who own hundreds of houses and run them into ground are ruining my investment because I own buildings on the same blocks.

"I resent the hell out of it when people lump us all together as slumlords. Some of these guys are criminals. They should be prosecuted. But they're not."

Three city neighborhoods produce more than half the lead poisoning cases in Maryland. But landlords avoid making repairs by boarding up their dangerous houses, then marketing them to unsophisticated buyers. To stop the "killer blocks" from being recycled, Paul says, the city should demolish them.

"God knows how much anguish we could save ourselves," Paul says.

As for Jones, she pays her late-landlord a compliment rarely heard in East Baltimore.

"My landlord?" she says. "I love my landlord."

Originally published on Jan 20 2000

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