A class action lawsuit filed Thursday accuses Baltimore's Kennedy Krieger Institute, a research and care facility for children with disabilities affiliated with Johns Hopkins University, of exposing poor black children to "dangerous lead hazards" during a 1990s housing study.
At the time, lead-based paint coated the walls of an estimated 95 percent of homes in Baltimore's low-income neighborhoods.
The study sought to uncover cost-effective abatement processes that would reduce blood lead levels in children. More than 100 families participated, moving into East and West Baltimore homes that had undergone different treatments to reduce lead paint and dust exposure ranging from paint removal to new windows and floors. For two years the researchers collected blood, dust and water samples to gauge each treatment's effectiveness.
Lead poisoning can damage nearly every system in the body, including the brain. For most children in the study, blood lead levels stayed the same or dropped. And in 1996, the State of Maryland made the institute's lead abatement protocol law -- a policy change that led to a 93 percent drop in lead poisoning in Baltimore.
"From 1993 to 1995, Kennedy Krieger conducted federally funded research that showed landlords and building owners could make specific improvements to their properties that would reduce lead within homes," Dr. Gary Goldstein, president and CEO of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, said in a statement about the lawsuit. "We are proud that the resulting 'lead safe' housing standard was made into Maryland law, leading to the end of the epidemic. Today, this law protects families by requiring landlords to make their houses 'lead safe.'"
But the lawsuit, filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court, claims the institute "selected children and their parents who were predominantly from a lower economic strata and minorities," and, "used these children as known guinea pigs in these contaminated houses to complete this study."
The suit accuses the institute of negligence, fraud, battery and violating the state's consumer protection act, alleging that children who participated in the study served as "canaries in the mines" -- sentinels, of sorts, to benefit the greater good.
"Children were enticed into living in lead-tainted housing and subjected to a research program which intentionally exposed them to lead poisoning in order for the extent of the contamination of these children's blood to be used by scientific researchers to assess the success of lead paint or lead dust abatement measures," the lawsuit states. "These children's health was put at risk in order to develop low-cost abatement measures that would help all children, the landlords, and the general public as well."
Don Ryan, executive director of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning at the time of the study, said children who moved into study homes with varying degrees of lead abatement were safer than their neighbors.
"Children living in these houses were the luckiest kids on the block in term of lead poisoning risk," said Ryan, who is now a board member for the National Center for Healthy Housing. "It was not a question of: Should we allow children to live in houses with lead paint? That was the prevailing situation across the country."
The Baltimore City Health Department was responsible for following up on reports of increased blood lead levels -- a rare event over the course of the study, a Kennedy Krieger Institute spokeswoman said.
The lawsuit is the latest in a decade-long legal battle over the institute's lead paint study. In 2001, the Maryland Court of Appeals compared the study to the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, which withheld syphilis treatment from African-American men -- an analogy Ryan called "sadly misplaced."
"In the U.S., anybody can sue anybody else -- it's one of the freedoms of our system," said Ryan. "But [the lawsuit] is essentially blaming researchers for society's failure to provide safe housing for kids. I see this as terribly misguided, unfounded and unfair."
Ryan said he hopes the lawsuit might highlight the ongoing health crisis of low-income housing.
"The number-one environmental health hazard is crummy, substandard housing," he said, adding that lead poisoning, mold, pest infestations and asthma triggers continue to plague low-income neighborhoods.
"Are we going to accept a significant portion of our population living in housing that hurts their health?" he asked. "I would hope this case would lead to a check in the American conscience about the quality of low-income housing."