Investing in Lead Abatement: Protecting Maine Families from a Hidden Danger

The drinking-water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has heightened awareness of the danger lead poisoning poses to human health, especially to children and pregnant women.   Lead, in both paint and plumbing, is a particularly serious health threat here in New England where our housing stock is older than in most other states. 

Over the past 30 years, we have made great strides in reducing the lead in our homes and other buildings, but much work remains to be done. Recognizing the danger posed by lead paint, the federal government banned the manufacturing of residential lead paint in 1978.  Maine children, however, remain at a high risk for lead poisoning because more than 60 percent of our state’s homes were built prior to 1978.   Furthermore, homes that were built before 1950 have the highest lead concentration in their paint.  Children may become exposed to lead by eating paint chips, but exposure from paint is most harmful when dust is inhaled from flaking or peeling lead-based paints.  Lead poisoning presents an even greater threat in low-income communities that do not have the resources to pursue lead abatement programs.

Since the beginning of my service in the U.S. Senate, I have worked to raise awareness and secure important investments to help protect our children and families from this dangerous and too often unseen problem.  In 1999, during my first term in office, I held a field hearing on lead poisoning in Lewiston.  Since that time, I have strongly advocated for increased funding for programs to address lead abatement, such as the Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction program.  As Chairman of the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development (THUD) Appropriations Subcommittee, I have successfully secured robust funding for this important program in this year’s bipartisan funding bill. 

The Appropriations Committee unanimously approved the THUD bill, which includes my provisions to increase the federal government’s commitment to lead abatement.   As I write this column, the bill is being considered by the full Senate. 

The bill has several important lead-related provisions.  First, it requires the Department of Housing and Urban Development to lower its acceptable blood lead level to match the recommendation of the Centers for Disease Control.  In 2012, the CDC lowered its blood lead limit for children from 10 to 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, but HUD has not updated its guidelines since 1999.  Unfortunately, the HUD standard allows children’s blood lead levels to be three to four times higher than the CDC standard before action is required to address lead hazards in public and assisted housing.   Our provisions would change that.

Second, it provides $135 million for Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes grants, which is $25 million more than both this year’s funding level and the President’s budget request for the coming year. This increased funding level will provide safer homes for more than 6,200 additional low-income families, including those living in studios and efficiency apartments that are currently not eligible for these grants. 

Third, it provides $25 million to public housing authorities to address lead-based paint hazards in public housing units. This funding will allow authorities to conduct abatements, interim controls, and risk assessments in units where children six years of age or younger reside. 

Fourth, it requires HUD to provide guidance to Public Housing Authorities (PHA) on lead-related regulations as well as provide training and publicize best practices on making and keeping housing lead safe.  PHAs are also encouraged to improve tenant awareness and education, and train their maintenance and property management staff on safe inspection and abatement practices.

At least 4 million American households have children that are being exposed to high levels of lead. There are approximately half a million children five years old or younger with blood lead levels above 5 micrograms, the level at which the CDC recommends public health actions be initiated.

Lead can harm anyone who is exposed; however, it presents the greatest health risk to the most vulnerable. While children who suffer from low-level lead poisoning may not exhibit obvious symptoms, research is increasingly showing that even relatively low levels of lead exposure can cause reductions in IQ and attention span, reading and learning disabilities, hyperactivity, and behavioral problems, all of which can threaten a child’s ability to achieve his or her full potential. The long-term effects of lead poisoning are truly alarming and often irreversible.

Despite our efforts to fight this largely preventable health problem, lead poisoning remains one of the most prevalent environmental health problems facing children today.  We must continue our efforts to eradicate this health threat.