Gasoline stations in Maine sell “unleaded” gasoline, and nearly all vehicles are labeled “unleaded gasoline only.” That has been the case since well before most of us began driving. Lately, I’ve been giving those notices a bit more thought.

Gasoline used to contain lead. It was an additive to prevent “knock” in engines. Unfortunately, lead became a part of automobile exhaust and remained in the environment, which is a problem because lead significantly impacts human health — especially child development. Starting in the 1960s, the U.S. phased out the use of lead in automotive gasoline, hence the “unleaded” label.

Our automobiles no longer are adding lead to our environment, but another source of lead continues to poison hundreds of Maine children every year: household paint.

Lead was used in paint long before automobiles were even dreamed of. The Greeks and Romans used lead white paint as early as fourth century B.C. Lead paint continued to be used throughout most of the 20th century, even as its danger to public health became more widely acknowledged. Lead paint poses a threat when it breaks down or is disturbed. Flaking or chipping paint can be ingested by young children; paint flakes break down into dust that can be picked up by young fingers and eaten or breathed in. Sanding of lead paint produces toxic dust. Breakdown of lead paint on inside and outside walls can lead to exposure. When it flakes off outside a home, it can poison soils, creating an ongoing threat.

Lead poisoning is dangerous to humans of any age, but children especially are at risk because lead poisoning prevents normal development and inflicts permanent, irreversible damage. According to the Maine CDC, lead poisoning can cause the following: learning disabilities, lower intelligence, language or speech delays, behavior problems and hearing damage.

In 1973, Maine took action to address lead risks with passage of the Lead Poisoning Control Act. In 1991, the act was amended to focus on childhood lead poisoning. The stated goal was “to eradicate childhood lead poisoning by the year 2010” (22 MRSA Section 1314-A). To accomplish that, it authorized the Maine CDC to establish programs to address child lead poisoning. Unfortunately, 2010 has come and gone, and our children continue to be poisoned.

The Maine CDC did establish a program to address poisoning, and it continues today. That program involves blood lead level testing of children who may be at risk, inspections of the homes of children whose lead level exceeds a certain threshold and abatement when lead is found in the home. All children on MaineCare are tested at ages 1 and 2, and pediatricians assess all children for potential exposure and test those with risk factors. Maine set the blood lead threshold for action at what was then the federal level, 15 micrograms per decaliter (ug/dl). That threshold remains in effect today, despite improved scientific understanding of how damaging lead is to children, even at significantly lower blood levels.

In addition to health impacts, childhood lead poisoning has negative economic impacts in Maine. A recent study of the cost of lead poisoning by a University of Maine economics professor concluded that in Maine, the total annual cost of childhood lead exposure is $268 million. Lead poisoning is a problem with negative impacts for all of us, not just children and families directly impacted.

Recent research has made abundantly clear the threats of low-level lead exposure. There is no safe blood lead level, and research confirms significant negative impacts for children at levels from 5 to 9 ug/dl. The federal government recognizes this and has lowered its threshold for blood lead levels that require action to 5 ug/dl.

Maine needs to update its standards to reflect the latest research in the field, which is why I am sponsoring LD 1115, An Act to Makes the State’s Standard for Lead Exposure in Children Consistent with the Federal Standard. My bill aligns Maine’s standard with the federal standard at 5 ug/dl. Maine children deserve nothing less. We know hundreds of Maine children are poisoned every year with blood lead levels of 5 to 9 ug/dl, yet no action is taken. I find that unacceptable. It is long past time for Maine to update its standards.

We have acted to take lead out of gasoline. Now we must act to take lead out of our children’s bloodstreams.

Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, represents Maine Senate District 30, which includes Gorham and parts of Buxton and Scarborough.