Experts: Lead poisoning affects students in Lewiston, Auburn


In Lewiston and Auburn schools, students are not screened for lead poisoning, administrators of both cities said.

Whether a child is tested is between a child, the parents and their doctor, said Lewiston Assistant Superintendent Tom Jarvis and Auburn Superintendent Katy Grondin.

“It’s no different than anything else,” Jarvis said. “If a child comes to school with a medical need, we do what we need to do. It’s not one of those conversations that is being talked about on a regular basis.”

But the lead problem is there, said Lewiston Superintendent Bill Webster.

Challenges that some Lewiston students face — the inability to maintain attention for any length of time, low cognitive skills and other issues — likely stem from lead poisoning, Webster said.

“However, we don’t have the wherewithal to really follow up on that,” he said. “We can say to a parent, and do say, ‘Have you considered this as a possible issue with your son or daughter?’”

Generational poverty is Lewiston’s biggest roadblock for students, Webster said. “I have no doubt that these are also the families most impacted by lead.”

The school district is ill-equipped to help a family get their apartment tested and deal with the results, Webster said. The medical community needs to play a big role in lead poisoning, he said.

“Even our poorest families are still able to access medical care for their children. Between that and code enforcement, we get into some homes,” he said. “We have counselors in all our schools.”

Counselors make reports to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which tends to focus more on possible abuse in the home. But, Webster said, social workers can also respond to an inappropriate home environment, such as peeling lead paint.

In Auburn, lead poisoning isn’t a hot topic; bedbugs and head lice are, Grondin said. There are not many known cases of lead poisoning among Auburn students, she said. “It’s not something we ask. We don’t hear from parents.”

If a student is struggling, “We may mention, ‘Have you had your child tested?’ if a student is experiencing difficulty.”

It would be helpful if the city had a listing of buildings that have lead paint, because the list could be shared with parents in those buildings as a way to encourage them to have their children screened, Grondin said.

The School Department shares health alerts, but “some parents who need the information may read it and say, ‘That’s not me,’” Grondin said.

Dr. Douglas Smith, the school physician for Lewiston and Auburn, said lead poisoning affects a fairly small percentage of the total student population.

“However, any single student affected by lead poisoning is one too many,” he said. “While mild in some cases, lead poisoning can have devastating consequences on a child’s development, physical, emotional, educational and otherwise.”

Lead poisoning is a significant contributor to the rising number of students needing special education services, Smith said.

He argued against having the schools do testing or require testing, however, saying screening is usually done when a child is 1 or 2. He said more screening would likely result from a stronger relationship between parents and doctors.

Smith said it’s encouraging to see that the amount of lead screening in Lewiston-Auburn has substantially increased over the past 10 years: 33 percent of 1- and 2-year-olds in 2003 versus 76 percent in 2013. That is a much higher rate than the state overall.

More intensive screening in neighborhoods where lead poisoning is high would be the best use of limited budgets, Smith said.

DANGER: Lead Paint

Four part, six-month Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting investigation into the lingering problem of lead poisoning in Maine:

Wednesday: Childhood lead poisoning may not be in the news so much, but it’s still the No.1 health hazard for children. 

Thursday: Maine braces for hundreds more reported cases of lead poisoning in 2015 after the state adjusts lead levels that trigger a diagnosis.

Friday: A law designed to protect homeowners from lead is almost never enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency | How to handle lead paint ‘on the job’

Sunday: Rates of lead poisoning are down in most of Maine’s largest cities, but remain stubbornly high in Lewiston and Auburn | Lewiston’s Somalis find lead poisoning in homes