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Harry Jaffe: Lead-based paint still a threat in D.C.

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Local,DC,Harry Jaffe,Environment

Merrit Drucker was driving through the Fort Stevens neighborhood a few months ago when his eyes fixed on one of the older apartment buildings that line 14th Street north of Military Road.

What caught Drucker's eye was the paint on the outdoor woodwork. It was rough. Older building? Flaking paint? There was a good chance the peeling paint might be lead-based.

"It's relatively easy to observe the outside of the buildings," Drucker tells me. "If they are of a certain age and a bit deteriorated, they might have lead-based paint."

Merrit Drucker is on a mission to rid the District of lead-based paint.

Lead can be poisonous, especially to the nervous system of developing brains. According to study after study, lead-based paint can ruin the lives of kids, poison their brains and diminish their chances of future success. The Environmental Protection Agency says children exposed to lead can suffer nervous system, hearing and kidney damage -- and learning disabilities.

Lead can get into a toddler's system if they eat paint chips or breathe dust laden with lead.

"Bad stuff," Drucker says.

Drucker, a native of Queens, was Mayor Anthony Williams' Clean City coordinator. When Adrian Fenty became mayor, he made Drucker head of his Community Services and Relations division. But when Drucker brought District agencies down on neighborhoods to fix slum-like conditions in 2008, Fenty ordered him to back off. Drucker quit. He went to the private sector for four years before returning to city government. He's now facilities chief of St. Elizabeths Hospital.

"I never really lost the desire to fix up blighted conditions in the city," Drucker tells me.

As a private citizen, Drucker went after lead paint because it's a toxic byproduct of blight. Drucker had studied the horrible effects of lead paint back in the 1990s. The federal government banned the use of lead in paint in 1978, but in older buildings, such as the ones on 14th Street in Fort Stevens, it still covers walls and windows. More than 80 percent of the District's housing was built before 1978.

Drucker started to forward lists of buildings he suspected of being contaminated to D.C.'s environmental agency's Lead and Healthy Housing Division. Associate Director Pierre Erville welcomed his suggestions, compared them against known violators, and investigated fresh leads.

"It's time consuming but not enormously difficult to do," he says. "The city has been very effective."

If city inspectors discover lead paint, they can order a building owner to remove it. It's a costly undertaking but well worth the savings in potential contamination.

Drucker has teamed up with activist Terry Lynch to take his crusade to Lynch's Mount Pleasant neighborhood. They hope to enlist interns this summer.

"I plan to keep at this until as much of the city's housing is lead safe as possible," says Drucker.

It's very possible that D.C. kids will have a better future for his efforts.

Harry Jaffe's column appears on Wednesday. He can be contacted at hjaffe@washingtonexaminer.com.

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