Lead poisoning remains a serious risk to many of Maine’s children. Over the past five years, more than 2,600 Maine children were either diagnosed with lead poisoning or were likely to have been diagnosed had they been tested. The devastating effects of lead exposure on children range from developmental delays, to muscular and nervous system damage, to premature death. Even the lowest levels of exposure can result in permanent brain damage.

Kristen Cloutier

Lewiston has the highest rate of childhood lead poisoning in the state. Its effects on IQ, speech development and behavior challenge the city’s educational and juvenile justice systems. ADHD, irritability, aggressive behavior and learning disabilities can all be attributed to childhood lead poisoning. Such poisoning results in lower educational achievement and earning potential, and widens the achievement gap, resulting in generational impacts on health care and special education costs.

Almost 95% of Lewiston’s three-unit and larger multi-family structures were built prior to the elimination of lead paint. Representing 88.3% of our total rental units, lead presents a real and imminent danger to many of our children and their families.

In 2018, city administration estimated that the total cost to achieve city-wide lead-safe status would be over $63 million (based upon an average remediation cost of $12,500 per unit, the average from our most recently completed grant, and assuming 75% of the 6,728 then current rental units require remediation). These estimates make it clear that lead poisoning will remain an issue in Lewiston for the foreseeable future.

For nearly 20 years, the city has partnered with the federal government to mitigate these hazards. Since 2002, Lewiston has received four federal lead grants from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development totaling $10 million. This funding is making a real difference in the safety of our housing and in people’s awareness of the hazard. In October, Lewiston’s fifth HUD grant was announced. This grant, totaling $5,206,649, combines lead hazard reduction with housing rehabilitation, energy efficiency and healthy homes resources, and will increase the number of lead-safe housing units in the city. Considering that every dollar in lead control is estimated to return between $17 and $221 to our community, this is a great investment.

But there remains much to be done.

In addition to grant-funded remediation, partners such as Healthy Androscoggin, the Maine State Housing Authority, our legislative delegation, and others, have and will continue to focus on community awareness, lead education workshops for tenants and landlords, creating practical lead-reduction tools for landlords, and drafting policy strategies.

For example, the Lewiston City Council recently unanimously approved a Transformation Plan Project funded by a $1.3 million HUD Choice Neighborhoods Grant as well as a Rental Registration Program that will provide up-to-date information on our housing stock. Our work is being recognized nationally by communities like Providence, Rhode Island, Biddeford, Maine, and western Michigan, all looking to Lewiston to share our rental registration program language and overall approach to lead poisoning prevention.

In September, Congressman Jared Golden introduced the Lead Free Future Act, which would invest $2.5 billion a year over five years in lead screening, education, abatement and data collection across the U.S., enough to remove lead from more than 220,000 homes annually and screen millions more. LD 1116, a state law passed this year, will require mandatory blood lead testing for all one and two year olds to help identify lead exposure before children experience devastating lifelong impacts. I was happy to cosponsor this legislation in my role as a state representative.

The Portland Press Herald recently reported that “in 2000, a Cabinet-level study found that it would cost about $250 billion in today’s money to eliminate all lead paint” and that “another study found that Maine kids born in 2008 can as a whole expect to earn nearly $240 million less (in 2008 dollars) throughout their lifetimes because of the impact of lead on brain function and learning ability.”

It’s time to shift costs away from lost productivity and, over the long term, reduce special education costs by making strategic investments in our housing and our children’s health now.

Our work must continue.

Kristen Cloutier is mayor of the city of Lewiston and state representative for House District 60.

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