LEWISTON — The office of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins announced Thursday that Lewiston will receive $3.4 million to address lead hazards in downtown housing. 

City officials say the money will provide a significant boost to the ongoing lead abatement program, in which much of the focus has been on the downtown “tree streets” neighborhood. The area features buildings that were built mostly before 1940, when the use of lead paint was common. The neighborhood is home to many low-income families with young children. 

There is $3 million in a Lead Hazard Reduction Demonstration grant and $400,000 in a Healthy Homes Supplemental grant. 

“This $3.4 million investment to reduce lead hazards is excellent news and will help ensure that more Maine families will have safe and healthy homes,” Collins said in the statement. 

The three-year grant begins in 2018 and will help the city address roughly 220 apartment units in the downtown, according to the announcement. That’s on top of the more than 200 units that were already addressed from the previous round of funding. 

“Lead poisoning is a very serious public health threat, particularly in New England where our housing stock is older than in most other states,” Collins said in the statement. “In 1999, during my first term in office, I held a field hearing on lead poisoning in Lewiston. Since that time, I have strongly advocated for increased funding for programs to address lead abatement.” 

Collins serves as chairwoman of the Transportation, Housing, and Urban Development Appropriations Subcommittee. 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to affect IQ, ability to pay attention and academic achievement. And effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected.”

Lincoln Jeffers, director of economic and community development in Lewiston, said Thursday that he and the city’s grant writer were surprised and thrilled by the announcement, which came Thursday morning.

“For most of us at City Hall, it made our days,” he said. 

The city applied for the money in January but wasn’t expecting to hear anything until at least July, he said. For the city, the funds will guarantee that its program continues. According to Jeffers, the abatement program is ahead of schedule, with more units committed and more demand locally. 

“We’ve got property owners asking, ‘Is there more money? I’d really like to do this,'” he said. 

That demand could come from standards that were changed in 2015, when state law created a lower blood-lead-level standard of 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of whole blood, down from 15 micrograms.

But there’s also a long way to go. Jeffers estimates there are roughly 5,800 units in the downtown census areas that could fit the criteria, but he said that doesn’t mean all of them would test high for lead. 

When the results of a lead test on a child show high levels, and the apartment or dwelling of the child also tests hot for lead, the landlord is forbidden from renting the unit until abatement measures have occurred.  

Jeffers, 56, said he remembers seeing public service announcements on television when he was young, with disclaimers about the risk of lead paint.  

“It has lifelong implications,” he said. “Thankfully, the federal government recognizes it. And we’re still combating the problem.” 

He added that the lead crisis in Flint, Michigan, may also be playing a role in the continuing focus on abatement programs. 

Last year, the same grants were awarded to the Maine State Housing Authority, and disbursed to multiple communities. Jeffers said the last three-year grant awarded to Lewiston will expire in December, meaning the program can continue “seamlessly.” He estimated the grant will be the city’s fourth over the past 20 years. 

[email protected] 

Comments are not available on this story.