Bettyann Sheats of Auburn stands in the shared hallway of an apartment building she owns on Lisbon Street in Lewiston. The railing tested positive for lead contamination. Sheats’ first-floor tenant has a child who tested positive for lead poisoning, so the shared hallway was sealed off from that tenant’s residence.

LEWISTON — A state representative and landlord invited people into one of her buildings Tuesday to point out its biggest flaw — the prevalence of toxic lead paint. 

Bettyann Sheats, a Democrat from Auburn, owner of two abutting apartment buildings on Lisbon Street, took the proactive step in 2009 to have the lead abated, but one building was re-evaluated last year after a first-floor tenant’s child tested high for lead poisoning. 

Lead poisoning in children can cause serious health problems and affect physical and mental development. 

Sheats held a walk-through of her property at 724 Lisbon St., where she 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, and she pointed out other work that’s being done before she hopes to have a tenant back in next month. 

The event Tuesday, organized by Maine Conservation Voters, was meant to raise awareness of how common lead paint is in the Lewiston-Auburn area, which has an aging housing stock that has struggled to keep up with lead standards. 

According to the organization, between 2009 and 2014, there were 467 children identified as having been poisoned by lead in Maine, with 97 of them from the Lewiston-Auburn area.

Sheats said “fluctuating regulations and inconsistent grants” make it difficult for local contractors to do the work needed by area landlords. 

Kevin Leonard, manager of housing improvement service, energy, rehab and lead inspection for Community Concepts, who was also on hand Tuesday, said there are only a few contractors actively handling abatement projects in Maine. Leonard is part of a team that designs abatement projects in Lewiston-Auburn as well as Portland.

Lewiston and Auburn contract with Community Concepts to operate their lead abatement grant programs. Sheats has owned the buildings since 2004, but the work on the building in 2009 came from a lead abatement grant, which took care of most of the exterior work, where the paint was peeling, she said. 

Sheats and Maine Conservation Voters are also concerned with proposed federal legislation, known as the Regulatory Accountability Act, that would make it more difficult to pass regulations, including those surrounding lead contamination.

“The regulations are there, in our opinion, to protect the health and safety of Maine citizens,” said Beth Ahearn, political director for Maine Conservation Voters on Tuesday.  

Sheats said she first got involved in politics because of finding lead in everyday household items at her Auburn home. 

Maine’s housing stock is the sixth oldest in the country. According to Community Concepts, 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. Sheats’ properties were built around 1904, she said. 

Leonard said he never has time to really appreciate a completed abatement job because he is quickly on to the next one. But, he said, awareness has come a long way from when he started in the field in 1999. 

However, he believes that many people have the mentality that lead isn’t an important issue — until they’re affected by it.

“Until it hits in your backyard, it’s not a problem,” he said. 

He said just in the past year, he’s seen a huge improvement in enforcement of lead issues. 

Fowsia Musse, community outreach worker for Healthy Androscoggin, brings information on lead directly to people living in the area. She said she brings folders stuffed with info to hundreds of apartment units, often bringing along cleaning supplies and other items for families. 

All funding for the local grant programs come from federal dollars. Earlier this year, Lewiston was awarded a $3.4 million federal lead abatement grant that will essentially keep the local program afloat. 

When the grant was announced in June, Lincoln Jeffers, Lewiston director of economic and community development, said there has been more demand lately from landlords, which could be in response to heightened standards regarding lead.

In 2015, state law created a lower blood-lead-level standard of 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of whole blood, down from 15 micrograms.

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. 

Sheats said certain areas of the first-floor unit tested hot, and she’s now in the middle of renovating the second floor. Most abatement consists of covering up any exposed surface like cracking or peeling paint. 

Travis Mills, program manager for the Lewiston-Auburn lead abatement grant program, said that as long as grant money keeps coming, the state will continue to build up the number of contractors who are licensed to do the work.

Lately, landlords have been seeking out their own training and certifications to do lead abatement work because of to the limited number of contractors available. 

Mills said education outreach is possibly the most important factor. 

“We’re really finding that the education piece is our best ability to assist people in managing properties,” he said. 

Sheats said that while it’s important to continue the discussion over lead regulations, programs and grant funding, there’s also a “real life aspect” to the issue that’s important to remember. 

“At the end of all this, there’s a child downstairs who’s sick, and will be for the rest of his life,” she said. “This is my building; this is my responsibility. But this is his home.” 

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Bettyann Sheats of Auburn hosts a walk-through of her property at 724 Lisbon St. in Lewiston on Tuesday to highlight the intricacies of lead abatement in the city. From the left are Kevin Leonard, who manages the lead paint program statewide for Community Concepts; Travis Mills, Lewiston’s lead program manager; Fowsia Musse, tenant organizer for Healthy Androscoggin; Wendy Collet, an outcome broker for Green and Healthy Homes Initiative; and Carlene Tremblay, representative from the office of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

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