A sign warns of lead abatement work going on at 54/56 Shawmut St. in Lewiston in August 2019.

LEWISTON, Maine — A new state law requiring the youngest children in Maine to be tested for lead exposure got a boost today when lawmakers and health officials met here to bring attention to the need to decrease the high level of childhood lead poisoning.

The law, LD 1116, was approved by Gov. Janet Mills on June 27 and became effective immediately. It requires that all 1- and 2-year-old children be tested for lead exposure. Previously, only children on MaineCare, Maine’s version of Medicaid, were tested.

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. However, the state also has had one of the lowest rates of testing for lead poisoning in children in New England, said Maine Senate Majority Leader Nate Libby, D-Lewiston. Before the new law, Maine was the only New England state to not require universal lead testing.

“These numbers caused a shock to the system and public health entities started to aggressively attack the issue,” Libby said.

Libby, along with Dr. Linda Glass, co-owner of Pediatric Associates in Lewiston, and Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, held a joint press conference Tuesday morning.

Children in the 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.

Libby, who spoke with his 7-month-old son Charlie in his arms, said he will have his son tested when the time comes.

“An ounce of prevention for this is really important,” Dr. Glass said.

She said that several years ago only 30 percent of children were tested because they had to be taken to a lab, which was inconvenient. Current tests involve a finger poke in a doctor’s office. The result from the five drops of blood needed can be ready before the patient leaves the office. That has pushed up test results to the 70 to 80 percent range in her practice, she said.

“That simple blood test, which is the only way to know whether a child has been exposed to lead, can help prevent a lifetime of heartache and health challenges,” said Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition. Libby credited Payne as being a primary driver behind the new universal testing law.

Payne cited research saying that between 2013 and 2017, some 1,782 Maine children were identified as lead poisoned. But the actual number in Maine could be as much as 50 percent higher because to date, only those kids who received a test could be identified.

State toxicologist Andrew Smith said earlier that the biggest risk factor in lead is the poor condition of old housing before 1950. The issue is primarily dust, as babies crawl on floors or grab onto window sills with lead paint chips, and then put their hands into their mouths and ingest lead.

A small amount of lead can cause damage

The amount of testing and identification of lead poisoning in the state began to turn around in 2016, when Maine adopted a lower number for determining when a child has lead poisoning. The state began using the level set by the U.S. CDC of 5 micrograms per deciliter. The previous level used by the state was 15 micrograms per deciliter, which missed children who were poisoned.

The new level, which went into effect in 2017, identified at-risk children earlier in their lives, often before the more severe effects of the poisoning took hold. The damage from lead poisoning is not reversible, Dr. Glass said.

Libby said that 900 more kids were tested and identified as lead-poisoned as a result of the new test level.

He said Maine has made great progress in recent years on identifying lead-poisoned children, then using that information to make their homes and their environments healthier.

Still, only 51 percent of 1-year-olds and 30 percent of 2-year-olds were tested for blood lead in 2018. For children covered by MaineCare, only 52 percent of 1-year-olds and 37 percent of 2-year-olds received a mandatory blood lead test in 2018, according to the Maine CDC.

The health officials and policymakers aim to change that.

Dr. Shah said the Maine CDC is focused on educating physicians around the state about the new law, educating families about testing and staffing up to handle the expected increase in lead poisoning.

“As we test more children, we will invariably detect more children as having elevated lead poisoning,” he said.

The Maine CDC sent a letter about the new law to medical practice office managers across the state on Sept. 3. It also has a Youtube video explaining the change. The Maine Medical Association also is disseminating information to its members, Libby said.

The Maine CDC also has guidelines on its website, including four questions for medical practitioners to ask parents to help assess a child’s risk of exposure to lead. Those include whether the child spent more than 10 hours a week in any house built before 1950 or whether the child spends time with an adult whose job exposes him or her to lead.

Backup help from the feds

The focus on the lead problem also is drawing in federal resources to help remediate homes.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded Maine nearly $15 million in federal grants in mid-October to identify and clean up lead in low- to moderate-income housing.

The Maine State Housing Authority was awarded about $3.8 million of that funding, Lewiston $5.2 million, Biddeford $3.2 million and Portland $2.5 million.

“Approximately 68 percent of the housing in downtown Lewiston was built before 1940, making it more likely to have lead paint hazards,” Lewiston Mayor Kristen Cloutier said when the grant was announced.

She said the federal government has awarded the city a total of $14.6 million in grant funds since 2002 to make its housing stock lead-safe and to educate residents on how to protect their children from the hazards of lead paint.

“That funding is making a real difference both in the safety of our housing, and people’s awareness of the hazards,” she said.

In September, U.S. Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat who represents Maine’s 2nd District, 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 said he expects the money to cover removal of lead from more than 220,000 U.S. homes annually and the screening of millions more homes.

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.