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YOUNGSTOWN Resident works to stop cases of lead poisoning



Published: Mon, July 1, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



Bill Watterson is concerned about the presence of lead in homes built before 1978.

By SHERRI L. SHAULIS

VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Bill Watterson wants to get the lead out, figuratively and literally.

The Youngstown resident wants landlords and everyone else to know he will do anything in his power -- be it civil or legal -- to stop lead poisoning cases in the city.

"It's been business as usual for some of these people for so long that they only look at these regulations as nuisances," he said. "Many of these people know the system, they know how to work the system and they do it very well."

Lead is often present in homes constructed before 1978, when lead-based paint was outlawed.

Though homes can have lead-based paint, the paint must be contained though measures such as fresh coats of paint or wallpaper for homes to be considered safe.

It is primarily the dust from lead-based paint, not the chips, that are considered dangerous.

Effects of lead poisoning

Watterson, who also serves as vice president of the Judson Citizens Watch on the city's South Side, said he took up the cause of lead poisoning in the city as a concerned taxpayer.

The issue, he said, not only affects children and families afflicted with lead poisoning, but also those paying the costs associated with everything from demolishing lead-filled homes to the special education needed for children suffering from lead poisoning.

Studies show children with lead poisoning often become more violent and suffer from behavioral changes, learning disabilities, developmental delays and more.

On average, the public pays between $8,000 and $16,000 a year to educate a child who suffers the effects of lead poisoning, according to studies in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Watterson said he has seen landlords in his neighborhood take down fluorescent orange placards put up by city officials on homes deemed unfit for human habitation because of the presence of lead.

He said he works diligently to inform Neil H. Altman, city health commissioner, of violators, but from there things can get bogged down.

Both Altman and Watterson point out that many landlords who have been cited for health-code violations related to lead hazards have cases backlogged in the city's courts simply because they are not a high priority.

"I understand there is a lot of crime in this area, so it makes sense that these cases are put on the back burner," Altman said.

Altman and the city's health board also have worked to introduce new laws that would make it necessary for anyone selling or transferring a property to conduct a lead test.

Making buyers aware

While federal laws already mandate that if a property owner is aware that a structure contains lead that information must be made available to a prospective buyer, Altman said the local law only takes that a step further.

"The federal law says 'if' they are aware," he said. "We want to make it so they 'must' be aware."

Altman said a fine of $100 and up to 90 days in jail would be imposed if homeowners fail to conduct the test, but added that the new laws would not force a homeowner to conduct expensive abatements if lead is found.

The laws received the first of three readings before the board of health more than a year ago, before then-Law Director Robert E. Bush Jr. stopped the process to check the constitutionality of the laws.

"That was over a year ago," Watterson said. "Things have gone into La-La Land, and we have not seen anything since then."

Altman said part of that is because Bush left his post to become city police chief, and the new law director, John McNally IV, needs to be brought up to speed on the issue.

slshaulis@vindy.com




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