LEWISTON — A state law that placed more stringent guidelines on addressing childhood lead poisoning has shown considerable results since it was implemented in 2016, housing advocates said Thursday.
The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in the first year of the law’s implementation, from September 2016 to September 2017, 386 additional children statewide were identified as lead poisoned. They would not have been considered poisoned under previous standards.
The law, which was pushed heavily by state Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, changed state protocol to align with federal recommendations, lowering the previous blood-lead-level standard of 15 micrograms of lead per deciliter (of blood) to 5 micrograms.
The law was approved by the Legislature in June 2015, and became fully effective in September 2016.
A news release Thursday from the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition said that if the new law hadn’t been in place over the past year, only 34 children would have been considered poisoned because they had blood-lead-levels of more than 15.
In a statement Thursday, Golden said the numbers over the past year affirm that more needs to be done.
“It is so important that this new law is working to identify lead-poisoned children, but for me it only demonstrates how critical it is that we do more as a state to remove lead hazards so that lead poisoning never happens to kids in the first place,” he said. “This is severely damaging young lives and it’s costing our communities millions. That’s why we need to commit ourselves to lead abatement with a greater sense of urgency.”
Leading up to the law’s implementation, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention made recommendations to create stricter standards based on warnings from health professionals and scientists that even the smallest amounts of lead in a child’s blood can lead to permanent damage.
A Sun Journal article in November reported that Lewiston remains the worst area in the state for lead poisoning. Its housing stock is old, meaning many buildings still have a prevalence of lead paint.
In 2015, Lewiston-Auburn was home to nearly 18 percent of the state’s lead poisoning cases among children 3 and younger.
According to Community Concepts, a state contractor for much of the lead abatement work, unless testing has shown that a building does not contain lead paint, landlords should assume that all homes built before 1978 contain lead paint and require lead-safe work practices.
Symptoms of lead poisoning in children include irritability, developmental delay, learning problems and more.
Under the new law, if a child’s blood-lead level is found to be above 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention sends a contracted consultant to determine whether a lead hazard is present in the child’s home. If lead is found, CDC staff determines what abatement measures must be taken.
The law also provides state officials with the ability to hand out civil fines of up to $500 per day on landlords who refuse to abide by lead abatement orders.
While abatement efforts have increased locally, the process is expensive — and slow.
Earlier this year, the Lewiston-Auburn Lead Program announced it was awarded a $3.4 million federal lead-abatement grant, which was welcome news. It meant the program that provides grants to landlords could continue into 2018.
However, a shortage of contractors who are able to conduct the work is causing long wait times for abatement. State Rep. Bettyann Sheats, D-Auburn, highlighted in August the difficulty for landlords and tenants dealing with lead issues.
During a walk-through of her rental property on Lisbon Street, she pointed out that she had recently spent about $2,000 to use specialized lead-trapping paint on a very small portion of hallway and stairwell. It took two months to obtain a contractor to do the work, she said.
Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, said in a statement Thursday that the statistics from last year show progress has been made.
“We know that lead poisoning causes significant, irreversible harm to our children and negatively impacts their ability to learn,” he said. “The fact that state legislators came together across partisan lines and acted to better protect Maine families, as well as reduce long-term special education costs in our schools, represents an important step forward for Maine’s public health system.”
A lead paint notice on the storm door of the side porch entrance at 144 Walnut St. in Lewiston. The building, which has lead paint on its porches and garage door, is one of 241 units helped by the Lewiston-Auburn Lead Program in the past three years. Another 9,000 housing units may still have lead paint in downtown Lewiston and Auburn.