A massive failure of government in Flint, Michigan, has jeopardized the well-being of thousands of children. But Flint’s distance from Maine doesn’t make us safe from breakdowns in policymaking – like the failure of officials here to implement tighter criteria for diagnosing lead poisoning. The state can and should take immediate action to create rules protecting our children.
Thousands of children from around Maine are being poisoned in their homes, where lead paint is doing lifelong damage to their bodies and brains. Legislators last June enacted a law that sets tougher exposure standards and includes funds for cleaning up contaminated housing.
The bipartisan measure lowered the level of lead in the blood considered to be poisonous from 15 micrograms per deciliter to 5, in line with the federal threshold. The legislation funds building inspections and creates eight new state positions to ensure that landlords remove environmental lead hazards.
But the old standards remain in place, seven months after lawmakers tightened the state lead-exposure criteria. Why? Because the Maine Department of Health and Human Services hasn’t put the tougher benchmarks into effect.
According to an agency spokesman, the DHHS is writing rules for the new lead-poisoning threshold and hopes to propose them soon. This news represents only incremental progress, since the routine rulemaking process calls for a four-month public comment period before proposed rules can take effect.
In a public health emergency, however, the agency could implement the rules immediately – and we think Maine’s lead-exposure crisis qualifies. Lead is known to stunt children’s growth, cause lifelong learning and behavior troubles and raise the chance that they’ll drop out of school and break the law.
What’s more, the scope of the problem is huge: Nearly 30,000 Maine children under 6 live in housing built before 1950, which is the most likely to be lead-contaminated.
And the most likely victims are poor children. Their families live in cheaper rental units that predate the 1970s ban on lead paint. And in Maine, which has the nation’s sixth-oldest housing stock, there are a lot of older houses and apartments around.
Recent events in Flint – where the city water supply is so lead-tainted that a federal emergency has been declared – have raised awareness of lead poisoning. But it took 17 months for Flint residents to get city and state officials to take their concerns seriously. Mainers should be able to count on a much more expeditious and effective response from the people who work on their behalf.