COLUMN: Removing Lead Hazards to Protect the Health of Children and Families

By: Sen. Susan M. Collins

Lead poisoning poses a severe threat to human health, especially to children and pregnant women.   Lead paint hazards are a particularly serious problem here in Maine and throughout New England, where our housing stock is among the oldest in the nation and where families with fewer resources are especially vulnerable.  Since 57 percent of Maine’s housing stock was built prior to 1978, the year that lead-based paint was banned, our State has one of the highest levels of lead paint contamination in the country.


Lead poisoning is a preventable health problem.  Although we are making progress, more work remains to be done.  I recently joined local, state, and federal officials, along with community leaders, in announcing nearly $15 million in federal grants to support lead abatement projects by the cities of Biddeford, Lewiston, and Portland, and the Maine State Housing Authority.  


This funding, which was awarded through the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), will help protect Maine children and families from lead-based paint and home health hazards.  These grants will provide safer homes for more than 750 of our most vulnerable families, a significant step forward in our efforts to eradicate this health threat.  In addition, this funding will support weatherization and energy efficiency efforts, as well as develop a lead abatement workforce that includes skilled jobs.


Biddeford, for example, received nearly $3 million to address lead hazards in 135 housing units, which will provide safer homes for children in low-income families as part of its Safe Homes for Healthy Families program.  In partnership with the University of New England, this program also targets at-risk communities to educate families on the dangers of lead poisoning and educate them on how to best create, access, and maintain healthier, lead-safe housing.  More than 4,000 residents in the downtown community stand to benefit from this important investment in Biddeford.


Addressing the threat of lead poisoning has long been a concern of mine.  In 1999, during my very first term in office, I held a field hearing on lead poisoning in Lewiston.  From that moment on, I have strongly advocated for increased funding for programs to address lead contamination.  Since 2002, Lewiston has been awarded a total of $14.6 million in federal grants to make its housing stock lead-safe and to educate residents on how to protect their children from this hazard.  Two years ago, at my urging, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development updated its regulations to incorporate the CDC’s limits on acceptable lead blood levels.  The HUD standards had not been revised since the year of my Lewiston field hearing.


As Chairman of the Senate Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, one of my priorities is to advance federal policies that improve housing conditions for low-income families with children.  The 2019 Housing Appropriations bill that was enacted last year included $279 million to combat lead hazards in homes where families with young children reside, which is $49 million above the 2018 level.  The Housing Appropriations Bill I authored for this upcoming fiscal year includes $290 million for HUD’s Lead Hazard Control grants, an increase of $11 million.  Since I have been Chairman of the Housing Appropriations Subcommittee, we have increased funding for Lead Hazard Control by 163 percent to an historic high level.


In March, I invited HUD Secretary Ben Carson to Maine to see firsthand how federal housing programs are improving the health, safety, and overall wellbeing of Mainers and strengthening local communities.  We discussed the need for intensive interventions to combat lead hazards in Maine communities that have very high incidences of lead paint. 


Providing resources for multi-year projects will dramatically reduce lead-based paint hazards in communities with old housing that are in the greatest need for lead remediation. These grants are a significant step forward in our efforts to eradicate this health threat.