Progress in the Fight to Protect Children and Families from Lead Poisoning

Lead poisoning poses a severe threat to human health, especially to children and pregnant women. Lead, in both paint and plumbing, is a particularly serious problem here in Maine and throughout New England, where our housing stock is older than in most other states.

A new rule by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that took effect this month will better protect children living in subsidized housing from harmful lead exposure. I strongly advocated for this change that continues our nation’s decades-long effort to address this serious public health and environmental threat.

Nearly 40 years ago, in 1978, the federal government took an important first step by banning the manufacture of lead paint for residential use. 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. Even relatively low levels of lead exposure can cause reading and learning disabilities, hyperactivity, behavioral problems, and reductions in IQ and attention span, all of which can threaten a child’s ability to achieve his or her full potential.

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.

Lead poisoning presents an even greater threat to low-income families that do not have the resources to pursue costly lead abatement programs. It is estimated that 128,000 HUD-assisted housing units across the country have lead-based paint and have children under age six residing in them. Yet, despite the growing evidence of the harm caused to children by lead exposure, HUD’s regulations on acceptable lead blood levels had not been updated since 1999. This obsolete standard allowed for the lead in children’s blood to be up to four times higher than the level recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) before requiring action to address lead hazards in public and assisted housing.

Last year, I joined with Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island in writing to HUD Secretary Julian Castro, urging him to expedite his department’s work to update the HUD regulations to meet the CDC standard. The new standard lowers HUD’s acceptable threshold of lead in children’s blood from 20 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to five, which will help protect countless children from the harmful, often permanent effects of lead poisoning.

In addition to that bipartisan advocacy, I secured language in the fiscal year 2017 THUD Appropriations bill, which was approved by the full Senate by a vote of 89-8, that required HUD to lower its threshold to match the CDC’s. That bill also contained several important lead-related provisions in addition to the blood-level regulation, including additional funding to provide safer homes for thousands of additional low-income families.

At least 4 million American households have children that are being exposed to high levels of lead. Despite our efforts to fight this largely preventable health problem, lead poisoning remains one of the most prevalent environmental health challenges facing children today. We must continue our efforts to eradicate this health threat.