The house where Freddie Gray's life changed forever sits at the end of a long line of abandoned row homes in one of this city's poorest neighbourhoods.
The interior of that North Carey St house, cluttered with couches and potted plants, is lacquered in a fresh coat of paint that makes the living room glow.
But it wasn't always this way. When Gray lived here between 1992 and 1996, paint chips flaked off the walls and littered the hardwood floor, according to a 2008 lawsuit filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court.
The front windowsills shed white strips of paint. It was worst in the front room, Gray recalled years later in a deposition.
Before his controversial death last month while in police custody, which has set this city aflame in rioting, the life of Freddie Gray was defined by failures in the classroom, run-ins with the law, and an inability to focus on anything for very long. Many of those problems began when he was a child and living in this house, according to a 2008 lead poisoning lawsuit filed by Gray and his siblings against the property owner, which resulted in an undisclosed settlement.
Reports of Gray's history with lead come at a time when the city and nation are still trying to understand the full ramifications of lead poisoning. Advocates and studies say it can diminish cognitive function, increase aggression and ultimately exacerbate the cycle of poverty that is already exceedingly difficult to break.
The number of children that lead has poisoned is difficult to know. That's because the threshold for how much lead a body can safely tolerate has shifted dramatically over the years as researchers have come to more fully understand its dangers.
Decades ago, city health officials tested for blood-lead levels that were higher than 20 micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood. But now, it's believed that anything higher than 5 micrograms can cripple a child's cognitive development.
"In 1993, we found that 13,000 kids in Baltimore had been poisoned with lead, but we weren't collecting at the levels that we are today," said Ruth Ann Norton, the executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning. "If we had, we would have found 30,000 poisoned kids."
Overall, more than 93,000 cases of lead poisoning have been added to the state's Department of the Environment Land Registries over the past two decades, a timeframe in which Baltimore and other cities have substantially reduced the number of lead-painted houses.
"A child who was poisoned with lead is seven times more likely to drop out of school, and six times more likely to end up in the juvenile justice system," Norton said. She called lead poisoning Baltimore's "toxic legacy" - a still-unfolding tragedy that she says the city has yet to come to terms with. Those same kids who were poisoned decades ago are now adults. And such trauma "creates too much of a burden on a community".
The burden weighs heaviest on the poorest communities like the Sandtown-Winchester neighbourhood in West Baltimore that produced Freddie Gray. Here, most houses were built decades ago at a time when paint manufacturers hailed lead as a cheap additive. The effect of that lead, which Congress effectively banned in 1978, has been profound on Freddie's neighbourhood.
Statistics from 2012 show that more than 7 per cent of all children younger than 6 had possibly dangerous levels of lead in their blood.
Lead poisoning has been an especially cruel scourge on African-American communities.
"Nearly 99.9 per cent of my clients were black," said Saul Kerpelman, a Baltimore attorney who says he has litigated more than 4000 lead poisoning lawsuits in three decades.
"That's the sad fact to life in the ghetto that the only living conditions people can afford will likely poison their kids ... If you only have US$250 ($330) per month, you're going to get a run-down, dilapidated house where the landlord hasn't inspected it the entire time they've owned it."
Residents there and in other poor pockets of Baltimore now reflect on whether their lives would have turned out differently if they hadn't grown up inside houses with lead paint.
All these kids that grew up in those houses, they all have ADHD.
Rosalyn Brown has lived in Freddie's neighbourhood for decades and now occupies the house he once lived in. "They have mood swings. They have anxiety." Like her son, she said. She raised him in a house peppered with shards of paint. He must have eaten some, Brown said, wondering whether she, too, should pursue litigation and try to collect her own "lead cheque".
Freddie Gray's path towards such litigation began months after his birth in August of 1989. He and his twin sister, Fredericka, were born two months prematurely to Gloria Darden, who said in a deposition she began using heroin when she was 23. He lived in the hospital his first months of life until he gained weight.
It wasn't long after that he was given the first of many blood tests, court records show. The test came in May of 1990, when the family was living in a home on Fulton Ave in West Baltimore. Even at such a young age, his blood contained more than 10 micrograms of lead per decilitre of blood - double the level in which the Centre for Disease Control urges additional testing. Three months later, his blood had nearly 30mcg. And then, in June of 1991 when Gray was 22 months old, his blood carried 37mcg.
Dan Levy, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University who has studied the effects of lead poisoning on youths, said, "The fact that Mr Gray had these high levels of lead in all likelihood affected his ability to think and to self-regulate, and profoundly affect his cognitive ability to process information. And the real tragedy of lead is that the damage it does is irreparable."
By the time Gray and his family moved into the hovel on North Carey St, which became the subject of the subsequent litigation, the amount of lead in his system had lowered. But he and his sisters began developing problems.
Fredericka developed issues with aggression, Gray said in a 2009 deposition. Equally troubling was the children's performance in the classroom. All three of them were diagnosed with either ADHD or ADD.
Freddie never graduated from high school and was also often absent because of truancy or suspensions. He struggled. "All the schools that I went to, I was in special education," Gray said. He was arrested more than a dozen times, with his convictions involving the sale or possession of heroin or marijuana, eventually serving two years behind bars. There, he learned brick masonry and even harboured ambitions of getting into the trade.
But even that seemed a stretch to some. "I don't know much about brick masonry because I am not very handy myself, but, you know, is he someone that I would want to plan my walkway?" said psychologist Neil Hoffman, who interviewed Freddie as part of the lead poisoning lawsuit. "No."
The compounding setbacks didn't come as a surprise to pediatrician Levy, who said he has seen numerous children in Baltimore's ghettos - sometimes called "lead kids" - whose lives have followed a similar trajectory.
Still, the relationship between poverty and lead poisoning remains difficult to parse. Was it the lead poisoning that resigned Gray and his family to a life on the margins? Or would they have ended up there anyway?
Those were questions that Brown, who now lives in Gray's old house, mulled this week. A local attorney sends her weekly notices alerting her to the dangers of lead poisoning, asking if she or other residents want to sue over the alleged damage they experienced years ago.
"I can see it," she said. "I was sweeping and mopping up chips of paint all the time.I believe my anxiety comes from that. We got poisoned."
- Washington Post