AUGUSTA, Maine — Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald said the poorest children in his city have enough obstacles to overcome and he hopes state lawmakers will work to make sure lead poisoning is no longer one of them.
Testifying before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on Monday, Macdonald said he supports a bill by Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, to lower Maine’s blood-lead level standard from 15 micrograms of lead per deciliter to the new federal standard of 5 micrograms per deciliter.
Macdonald, a former police officer who served part of his career as a public school resource officer, said the change could make a big difference in the lives of hundreds of Maine children.
“Their energy, creativity and ambition are among the city’s best assets,” Macdonald said. “Unfortunately, far too many of those children are having their lives limited at a young age by lead poisoning.”
That new lower limit, when detected by tests administered to all children younger than 2 who are eligible for health care under the state’s Medicaid program, MaineCare, would trigger a series of interventions, treatment and lead abatement programs, including the safe renovation of many of the city’s oldest apartment buildings, Macdonald said.
Health care officials in Maine know that there are hundreds of children who are testing at blood lead levels higher than 5 micrograms of per deciliter but lower than 15, which under state law prevents any intervention, Macdonald said.
The shift in Volk’s bill is reflective of the most current science showing even low levels of lead exposure for long periods can result in irreversible neurological damage, learning problems and behavioral disorders, all of which drive up special education costs.
The impacts of lead poisoning can limit an individual’s ability to obtain higher education levels, in turn limiting the amount of income they will earn over the course of their lives, according to Volk and others testifying for the bill.
Lewiston, because of its aging and deteriorating housing stock, sees lead poisoning in children at three times the state average, Macdonald said.
Based on Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention data, there were 467 children treated for lead poisoning in Maine from 2009 to 2013 and 97 of those children were from the Lewiston-Auburn area, Macdonald said.
“That’s unacceptable,” he said.
In December 2014, Macdonald, along with other officials, announced the city was the recipient of $2.99 million in federal Housing and Urban Development grants for a Lead-based Paint Hazard Control Program. That will help fund a comprehensive lead education and abatement program, providing lead assessments for 225 downtown homes, interventions in 160 dwelling units and 50 educational and outreach events in the community.
The impact of Volk’s legislation would likely mean more children would meet the lower threshold for lead poisoning and more apartments would be identified and cleaned up, limiting the long-term exposure to lead poisoning going forward.
Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, said his group works to ensure families have access to safe and affordable housing.
“And yet, as we have been talking about here, there are hundreds and hundreds of kids across our state who are getting poisoned in their own homes and state policy is failing to adequately assist in addressing that problem,” Payne said.
He said he wanted to make sure that lawmakers understood that in all the science of lead poisoning, there was one key point.
“Our understanding of how bad lead is for kids and its impact on children, its impact on developmental delays, that has increased significantly and our protocol for intervening to address that problem hasn’t kept up but this bill would fix that,” Payne said.
Payne said landlords and the state had a mutual interest in cleaning up as much lead as possible but more importantly, reducing the overall exposure to lead in the first place.
“The current intervention scheme in Maine allows children to be exposed to far too much harm before the intervention actually happens in the form of a home inspection,” Payne said.
Payne also said there was a general misconception that lead poisoning in children was a problem from the 1970s or 1980s.
Steve Johndro, executive director of the Lewiston-based Healthy Androscoggin, a Healthy Maine Partnership, said part of his organization’s focus is to prevent lead exposure and poisoning in children.
Johndro said there was no safe level of lead exposure for children, based on the latest science. He said chipping and peeling paint in homes, including door and window frames and sills, and soil contamination where chipping paint falls to the ground are all sources for lead exposure in children.
He said Lewiston-Auburn has managed to increase the number of children it is testing for lead poisoning and the region also has an intervention regime that’s triggered when a child tests for lead exposure at 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood or higher, which is still twice the federal threshold.
Macdonald promised that with or without the state law change, his city would act to reduce lead poisoning. He said with the federal grants in hand, the city was on a proactive mission to wipe out lead poisoning.
“I see these little children out there at the bus stop and just looking at them you know that they’ve got a lot to overcome and some of that they may not be able to overcome,” Macdonald said. “But this is something here — that you people have an ability to make sure is not one of the barriers these children are going to face as they go on in life.”
Volk’s bill will be the subject of a work session before the committee in the days ahead before it heads to the full Senate for consideration.