A sign warns of lead abatement work going on at 54/56 Shawmut St. in Lewiston.

A proposed federal bill that would direct $12.5 billion in grants to tackle lead paint problems, along with a recent change in Maine law to test all young children for exposure, both promise to accelerate efforts to clean up homes in high risk areas like Lewiston-Auburn.

Maine, like other Northeast states, has some of the oldest housing in the nation that contains lead, which was banned by the federal government in 1978. Children in Lewiston-Auburn up to age 3 have the highest incidence of lead poisoning in the state. That can affect their brain function and cause behavioral issues, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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“The biggest risk factor in lead is the poor condition of old housing before 1950,” said Andrew Smith, the Maine state toxicologist. “The issue is primarily dust. Babies crawl on floors and put their hands into their mouths and ingest lead.”

U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 2nd District, on Thursday introduced legislation called the Lead Free Future Act that asks the federal government for $2.5 billion over five years in grants to state and local governments for lead screening, education and abatement. Golden expects the money to cover removal of lead from more than 220,000 U.S. homes annually and the screening of millions more homes.

“Lead poisoning robs thousands of Maine kids of a healthy life, and it costs our communities billions of dollars they desperately need,” Golden said in a statement.

Credit: Courtesy of Maine Environmental Public Health Tracking Program

He said more than 2,600 children in Maine were either diagnosed with lead poisoning over the past five years or would have been diagnosed if they had been screened. Nationally, lead irreversibly damages more than 535,000 American children under age 6 every year, according to the Green and Health Homes Initiative, a national group that works to make homes healthy and that has an office in Lewiston.

Golden plans on Saturday to tour homes in Lewiston-Auburn that have undergone lead abatement and to hold a roundtable discussion in Lewiston in the afternoon focused on ending lead poisoning in Maine. Expected to attend are Lewiston Mayor Kristen Cloutier and representatives from organizations tackling lead in the area including Healthy Androscoggin, Community Concepts and the Auburn Housing Authority.

Getting rid of lead is a slow process

Erin Guay, executive director of Healthy Androscoggin, a nonprofit health education and advocacy group in Lewiston, said it takes a long time to mitigate lead.

“[Golden’s] act would provide more resources to speed up the way we address lead,” Guay said.

She also pointed to a new state law signed in June by Gov. Janet Mills that aims to move the state toward its goal of eradicating childhood lead poisoning by 2030 by eliminating potential environmental sources.

The law requires all children to be tested by their physicians for lead at ages 1 and 2. Previously, only 1- and 2-year-olds in MaineCare, Maine’s Medicaid program, were tested. Until now, Maine has been the only New England state to not require universal lead testing.

The twin cities have been using U.S. Housing and Urban Development grants for lead abatement, among other funding. To date, the HUD lead grants only address lead paint hazards, meaning paint that is flaky or loose, said Travis Mills, the lead program manager for the Lewiston-Auburn Lead Program.

In October 2018, Mills said the program had cleared 500 housing units of lead through a HUD grant. Another three-year HUD grant currently under way would clear another 225 units, Guay added.

The Lewiston-Auburn Lead Program is a collaboration among the Twin Cities and Community Concepts and Healthy Androscoggin.

“The issue is this is not lead-free, it’s lead-safe, which means lead abatement,” Guay said. Lead-safe involves covering outdoor lead paint with vinyl siding and either stripping down paint or removing wood with lead paint on windows, doors and molding and replacing it with vinyl. It also could involve using a barrier compound over the problematic lead paint.

Golden’s plan, she said, would remove lead. Lead that is covered with vinyl or a lead barrier compound could potentially become a problem in the future, Guay said.

“The lead paint is still there under a stabilization layer that prevents normal breakdown,” Mills said. “If the painted surface gets damaged by people or pets, it could become a lead hazard again.”

He said an average unit interior can be cleared by current abatement methods in about 5 days. It could take weeks to clear exterior lead hazards. The lead program costs about $9,000 to $11,000 per unit including common areas in apartments and outsides of buildings. Complete lead removal is more costly.

“The [Golden] initiative to step up funding is important,” he said. “Otherwise we are going to deal with this until all of these old buildings are demolished.”

Education is key

Healthy Androscoggin attracts its own grants for education both of health officials and the public. That includes landlords who often are not making much money and are hard-strapped to tackle lead issues. And it includes educating immigrants who may have had no prior knowledge about lead.

In Lewiston-Auburn, an estimated 6.4 percent of children up to age 3 who were tested from 2013 to 2017 showed a high level of lead in their blood, Smith said.

Portland and Westbrook follow at 5.1 percent, Augusta at 5 percent, Sanford at 3.4 percent, Biddeford-Saco at 3.2 percent, Bangor at 2.9 percent and the rest of Maine at 2.6 percent.

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The high level for lead in blood set by the CDC is 5 micrograms per deciliter. The state of Maine adopted that level in 2016, dropping from the previous 15 micrograms per deciliter. The new level went into effect in 2017. Golden’s act recommends all states drop to 5 micrograms per deciliter.

Smith said the new level boosted inspections and orders for abatement.

“That resulted in a seven-fold increase in our inspections,” Smith said.

Tests showing high lead levels are sent to the state of Maine toxicologist’s office, which then has the homes of those children inspected. Smith said the number of inspections in 2016, 178, rose sharply to 297 in 2017 when the rule went into effect.

Beyond that, if the inspection is at an apartment, all units in the building are inspected. That added 571 more units to inspections in 2017 on top of units where babies with high blood lead levels lived.

State orders for lead abatement also rose from 201 in 2016 to 145 in 2017, the most recent year for which data is available.

Homeowners and apartment dwellers also can act to minimize the risk to children. Smith said lead dust falls to the floor every time a window or cupboard door with degrading paint is open or closed. Typical vacuum cleaners just recirculate the dust.

“A vacuum with a HEPA filter or wet clearing with a damp mop are good methods for cleanup,” he said.

For help with lead, call the Maine Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at 866-292-3474 (toll-free in Maine), 207-287-4311 or TTY: Call Maine Relay 711.