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Groups spread word on lead risk

Hazard persists in poorer areas

Fewer Boston children have been stricken with lead poisoning in recent years, but it remains a significant problem in many of the city's poorer neighborhoods, city health officials and activists said yesterday.

In 30 census tracts in the city, more than 10 percent of the children tested have elevated levels of the poisonous substance in their bodies, according to the Boston 2010 Project, a coalition seeking to eliminate childhood lead poisoning by the year 2010.

Yesterday the group, along with Angie's List, held the Lead Safe Awareness Resource Fair at the First Parish Church in Dorchester to spread the word to residents about the damage that lead can do to children.

"We as a city have taken this issue on because we know about the devastating effects lead poisoning has on young people," Mayor Thomas M. Menino said yesterday during the fair. About 60 people attended the event, which included a variety of exhibits on the dangers of lead, as well as workshops for homeowners on eliminating it.

According to statistics from the city, the number of new lead poisoning cases declined from 1,300 in 2000 to 460 last year. The cases are mostly found in pockets of Dorchester, Roxbury, Mattapan, and Hyde Park. The highest concentration appears to be in neighborhoods in Dorchester's Bowdoin-Geneva Street area.

In his 20-minute speech, Menino told the story of Antonio Lugo and Taina Polanco, a young couple that bought a house last year in Dorchester and discovered it contained lead paint.

Lugo and Polanco thought they had secured their American dream when they purchased the neat three-decker, a house with enough room for their daughter and soon-to-be born son, as well as rental space upstairs.

But weeks after buying the house, Lugo noticed an advertisement for the Boston 2010 Project, and called a number on the ad to arrange for a lead inspection. A week later, the inspector arrived. After checking several walls and windowsills, he told Lugo his house contained large amounts of lead-based paint.

Lugo was shocked when he received the estimates to fix the problem. "I was told it would cost $60,000," Lugo said yesterday at the fair. "I wanted to sell my house."

Lugo said that, with the project's guidance, not only did he find a much lower estimate, but he found out he and his wife were eligible for grants to cover the abatement costs. The work was done, and now the house is free of lead paint. Lugo said he had his children tested, and they had no traces of lead in their systems.

The Boston 2010 Project is a consortium of local nonprofits and city agencies formed two years ago to better coordinate the battle against lead poisoning.

Sean Palfrey, a professor of pediatrics and public health for Boston Medical Center, said children are more susceptible to lead poisoning because their growing bodies absorb the substance more than adults. Lead poisoning can lead to numerous health problems and learning disabilities.

Palfrey said lead paint was banned in the United States in 1978 but housing units built before that often have lead-based paints. And he said that poorer families are often pushed, out of necessity, to move into homes that are more affordable but may contain lead paint.

"Boston has the best lead prevention system in the world, but we need to continue to do what we can to eliminate this problem," Palfrey said.

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