AUGUSTA — A budget deal worked out among legislative leaders Monday includes a $4 million lead abatement program that would significantly boost efforts to combat a health issue that is especially severe in Lewiston and Auburn.
“I’m pretty pumped” to learn the program made the cut, said Rep. Jared Golden, a Lewiston Democrat who has been pushing for it since 2016.
“This is a big deal for Lewiston, Auburn and other towns that have had to deal with high lead poisoning levels,” Golden said Monday. “This has been a top priority for me and the Lewiston delegation for years.”
The lead abatement program is among $41.6 million worth of spending agreed on Monday by the Legislature’s Appropriations and Financial Affairs Committee
“This legislation will provide real solutions to the problems facing our state,” Rep. Drew Gattine, D-Westbrook, said in a prepared statement. “By confronting some of our major issues, like the opioid epidemic and the dire lack of care available for our most vulnerable citizens, we have finally come together to do what’s right by Mainers.”
Though there is “still a tremendous amount of important work remaining related to our infrastructure and higher education needs,” he said, “this bipartisan package renews my optimism that we can continue to sit at the table until the job is done.”
The measure also restores $600,000 for school-based health centers that Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, said “play a vital role in the health and well-being of our kids.”
“I have seen firsthand the impact Lewiston’s school-based health center has had in our community, which is why I worked so hard to ensure that this legislation was included in the spending package,” Libby said.
Golden, the assistant majority leader in the House, said there might be a special session soon to approve items on which legislators on both sides of the aisle could agree. Legislative leaders said they agreed as well that a bill to provide Medicaid expansion funding will be taken in both the House and Senate.
The new lead program, Golden said, aims to provide assistance to landlords who deal with peeling, chipping paint in older buildings before any children are harmed by it in the 280,000 Maine home that likely have lead issues.
Golden said the Maine State Housing Authority will oversee the new program, which ought to have enough funding for at least a couple of years. It will pay a portion of the abatement costs, Golden said.
What makes the new program so innovative, he said, is that it will pay a higher share when landlords seek to fix the problem before there’s a legal requirement for them to take action after a child is diagnosed with a high level of lead.
“It’s meant to be a carrot rather than a stick,” Golden said.
Existing programs generally devote most of their lead abatement money to clean up old lead paint in housing units where a child has developed signs of absorbing too much lead, a problem that can cause learning disabilities and other woes.
Greg Payne, the director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, told lawmakers last year the only lead abatement assistance available in Maine has been funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, typically between $1.5 million and $2 million annually.
He said the federal money is always “highly oversubscribed” so the state initiative is badly needed.
The issue is particularly sensitive in Lewiston and Auburn, which have the highest rate of childhood lead poisoning in Maine. Maine’s health tracking site shows 325 children three or younger suffered serious lead exposure between 2012 and 2016.
Healthy Androscoggin, which has long focused on the issue, describes lead as “a neurotoxin that is especially harmful to children under six years old” who most often are exposed from chipping, peeling paint in older homes.
The lead can create a dangerous dust “that settles on floors and windowsills where children and infants can touch and ingest it by chewing on toys, putting their hands in their mouths, and eating without washing their hands,” the community coalition said.
“It is heartbreaking that very young children, whose hands are never far from their mouths, and who spend a great deal of time on the floor and at window sill height, are the most vulnerable to ingesting lead dust,” Paul Hambleton, a former teacher who testified for the Maine Education Association about the bill last year, told legislators.
Hambleton said any housing that predates 1978, when lead additive was banned, “is very likely to contain lead. Before 1950, lead was heavily used and constituted up to 50 percent of the paint ingredients.”
“The apartments and older homes in Maine, now often housing for our most vulnerable and poor populations, were all painted with lead paint,” he said, which needs to be removed or contained.
Golden and Rep. Jim Handy, D-Lewiston, wrote in a March guest column for the Sun Journal that the new program is one that ought to move forward.
“There are plenty of problems out there that we don’t have the solution for,” they wrote. “Lead poisoning isn’t one of them.
“We know exactly how to stop this from happening. If we remove the source of the lead, children will stop getting lead poisoning.”
Golden said Monday that even if he comes up short in Tuesday’s congressional primary, where he has trying to win over Democrats to challenge Republican U.S. Rep. Bruce Poliquin in the fall, he will “feel really great” to bow out of office on a high note with the lead bill finally winning approval.
Robert Martel of Community Concepts Housing and Energy Services conducts a lead inspection in 2017 at an apartment on Howe Street in Lewiston. (Photo by Katya Danilova/Doroga Media)
Maine Tracking Network data on lead poisoning of children who were 36 months old or younger between 2012 and 2016 shows Lewiston and Auburn among the hardest-hit communities in Maine.