Gray Area: Lead Paint and Freddie Gray

Freddie Gray was poor and black and lead-poisoned. The combination proved deadly.

July 01, 2015
RIP Freddie Gray flyer

In late April, a week of demonstrations and rioting erupted in Baltimore after a 25-year-old black man named Freddie Gray died of a spinal cord injury while in police custody. Anyone who watched even a few minutes of TV coverage probably recalls the burning vehicles and looted CVS pharmacies. Footage of Toya Graham chasing her teenage son off the street while smacking him in the head went viral.

At about the same time, a contractor posted a story to our LinkedIn page about losing another bid to a noncertified window replacement contractor. His bid was 50 percent higher, and he complained that the contractor who got the job told the homeowner that he wouldn’t disturb any paint while replacing the windows. His post concluded with a familiar rant against big government and over-regulation.

I didn’t make the connection until I read an April 29 story in The Washington Post about the extraordinarily high blood lead levels among black children growing up in Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood. It was in a rental property there that Freddie Gray was poisoned by lead paint that flaked from the peeling walls and windows. 

Evidence from a lawsuit filed by Gray and his siblings against the property owner revealed that a blood test taken when he was just 9 months old showed 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood—that’s double the maximum level set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Three months later, his blood tested at almost 30 micrograms, and just before his second birthday, it measured 37 micrograms. 

Gray’s history reminded me of the RRP (Renovation, Repair and Painting) certification class I took in 2010. Our instructor told a story about when he and his wife had their first child. They were living in public housing just after college because it was all they could afford. They knew that the doors and windows would stick a little, but they didn’t know that each time they opened or closed them small particles of dried lead paint scraped off and floated onto the carpet and bedding and toys.

They soon noticed problems with their son’s balance and reaction time, so much so that he couldn’t put his hands out in time to break his frequent falls. Finally, during a hospital visit to treat bruises on the boy’s face from a bad fall, a blood test revealed that he had lead poisoning.

I’m sympathetic to the plight of small remodelers competing against uncertified, unlicensed, and uninsured contractors who don’t know their costs, have never pulled a permit, and are unaware of or ignore regulations such as the RRP. But I also know that poisoning from lead paint has real-world consequences.

Whatever the undisclosed settlement was in Freddie Gray’s 2008 lead-poisoning lawsuit, it came too late to undo the damage that had already been done. I don’t know whether the problems he had while growing up—trouble in school, drug abuse, repeated run-ins with the police—happened because he was poor or because he was black or because he was poisoned by lead. But the combination seems to have been deadly. 

For remodelers, the RRP rule is an expensive hassle, but compliance won’t kill anybody. Noncompliance just might. PR



Sal Alfano is the Director of Content for Professional Remodeler., 202.603.4884


About the Author



That is precisely why I have closed my window business. Look at Lowe's non-compliance suit ... not just the little guys.
You gotta know when to fold them

Thank you for that connection. I would much prefer to lose jobs to uneducated or irresponsible contractors than be part of the problem! When my career draws to a close, I will have a good conscience that we did everything we could do to protect the public and our workers.
Companies with scruples do have some added expense, but the payoff is invaluable!

One thing for sure the Police caused Mr. Gray's death..... I do not feel you should use this murder to promote your/our craft. It appears that you are trying to say, that this could have caused what ever troubles Mr. Gray may or may not have had and some what placing blame toward lead base paint, with no research of others life style who had been poisoned with lead base paint....
I feel you owe this fmily an an apology for using this and not have any research on this matter...
Michael Price

The second to the last paragraph is pure BS. Lead  may have had an effect on him but definitely not being black or poor had anything to do with it. There are many successful blacks that were raised properly by their poor  parents

Thank you Sal and the comments;
Recently, I encountered a home owner who being a registered AIA architect and professional city planner wanted me to ignore the lead issue throughout his mid 19th century vacation home and just vaccuum and clean the accummulated lead dust of years of abraded trim, doors, sash and jambs so he could rent to a familt with young toddler age children. I was extremely shocked by the lack of concern for his tenants children and what could possibly be a potentially damaging relationship and future lawsuit for him going forward. The reciprocation from this licensed architect was unbelievable, his concern was more for the lack of rental income than that families health issues in the future. I think the lead may have already affected his judgement and clouded his sense of responsibility. I left the job and now am suing for my outstanding balance. I could not continue to work for someone as unscrupulous or irresponsible as that. He holds me accountable for lose of his rental income because I made them aware of lead and need to remove all lead and delead the entire interior before renting to any family with children, let alone anyone. I have lived in those homes where the landlord was not owner in tenancy and did not care. I have one grandchild and hope for more, I wish all contractors would stop and a quick buck really worth it.
The answer is obvious, NO, oits never worth it and those that go along and keep on breaking the law as well as building codes nationwide_SHAME ON YOU!

Do you mind if we wait for Professional Remodeler to lead the charge in advocating for fines for home owners that do not use licensed contractors?  Little is going to change until that happens.  

So a child tested in 1990-91 and into perhaps 1993 with ever increasing lead levels gets to majority age and sues and wins a judgment/settlement for the same. However, it seems that the suit perhaps may have missed a defendant: his parents, probably his mother. With those results there should have been no question they should have moved and I am guessing that the welfare state had no lack of lead-free residences available for the family.

I previously submitted a comment to this article.  I do not see it published.  Perhaps PR is just PC and does not want to reveal that?  The problem is one of familial responsibility and not Big Brother's responsibility to protect us all from our lack of responsibility.

None of the comments we received has been removed from this page. Perhaps something prevented your comment from being posted properly. We apologize for the inconveience and urge you to please resubmit it.

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