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Baltimore Revitalization Generates New Safety Standards in Demolition

The city of Baltimore introduced a plan to revitalize East Baltimore and spurred new safety standards that may change the future of demolitions across the country. The city is redeveloping an 88-acre section of the community where nearly 56 percent of the properties were vacant. In 2002, the site’s manager, East Baltimore Development Incorporated (EBDI), formed a cross-sector nonprofit partnership called the East Baltimore Revitalization Initiative (EBRI) to help lead redevelopment efforts, which required tearing down hundreds of vacant and derelict properties. Many of these buildings were rowhouses that contained lead-based paint and asbestos, and there was overwhelming evidence that indicated demolition activities on nearby sites had introduced unsafe levels of lead dust into the atmosphere. In response, EBDI developed a protocol to ensure that safety was a priority during redevelopment activities on its site. The EBDI protocol – which has 12 core elements, including inexpensive techniques such as the widespread notification of when and where construction activity will occur; adequate use of fencing, barriers, and other means to limit access to sites and to keep children away; and the ample use of water to reduce the spread of dust – has proven to be so effective that it has generated interest from people across the country.

Before East Baltimore’s redevelopment, little research existed on the effect demolitions had on a neighborhood’s ambient air quality. A 2003 study analyzed lead dust and accumulation from sites near EBRI’s redevelopment site. Results showed that, following demolition, lead dust levels in the environment increased by as much as 40 times, and there was a 6-fold increase during debris removal. Though the community was already apprehensive about redevelopment activities, the health risks identified in this research generated even more concern. As a result, EBDI agreed to suspend demolitions until a protocol was in place that would ensure residents were not harmed. EBDI, with EBRI partners, developed a safety protocol that focused on minimizing the release of lead, asbestos, and other dust particles into the atmosphere and reducing or eliminating other hazards. EBDI also formed an independent expert panel to assess the protocol in consultation with community leaders and residents.

In the summer of 2005, the protocol was used during the removal of 18 housing units from the EBDI site. An independent contractor conducted tests that showed airborne lead dust particulates remained below detectible levels both before and after demolition. Dust wipes on nearby streets and sidewalks showed minimal increases in lead accumulation levels. Following this test, EBDI refined the protocol. A year later, during the removal of more than 500 housing units from the EBDI site, additional tests revealed no increase in airborne lead dust levels. Accumulation levels rose slightly but remained within federally mandated safety guidelines.

A 2008 study by the National Center for Healthy Housing compared the EBDI site with another site that did not use the EBDI protocol. The study found that the average lead-dust accumulation on the ground was 15 times higher in the location where EBDI’s protocol was not used. In a recent report on the implications of the EBDI protocol, David Jacobs, a leading environmental scholar and coauthor of the 2008 study, said, “It’s not enough to show that there’s a lot of lead being emitted through demolition, we needed to show that you can do something about it, and EBDI did that.”

Beyond East Baltimore

The EBDI demolition protocol proved to be so effective and associated costs so minimal that in 2007 the city of Baltimore revised its building code so that safety measures from the EBDI protocol are now a citywide standard. The state of Maryland is also considering adopting new legislative standards that would require similar safety measures be used throughout the state.

Interest has also been generated from city officials from across the country. EBRI partners have presented information on the protocol to city officials from Detroit and St. Louis, and a new research initiative on demolition safety in Chicago is underway as a result of the EBDI protocol. “There is an expansion of the national conversation around safe disposal of hazardous materials,” said Scot Spencer, Associate Director for Advocacy and Influence with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, an EBRI partner. Spencer added, “The biggest takeaway of the experience is that basic protections for human health and safety do not necessarily have to cost more in the redevelopment of land and communities.”