Starting next month, the federal Environmental Protection Agency will go after contractors in the Lewiston-Auburn area who aren’t following legal requirements for safely removing lead paint from residences, schools and other buildings.

Improper removal of lead paint during renovation is one of the ways lead can poison adults and children. From 2009 to 2014, more than 20 percent of Maine children diagnosed with lead poisoning were from the Lewiston-Auburn area.

Lead poisoning can cause lowered intelligence in children, lifelong behavior or attention problems, hearing deficiencies, kidney damage and slowed body growth.

The EPA action, announced Tuesday, aims first to educate contractors on the agency’s lead-safe renovation rules. But then the agency will go into enforcement mode.

“Following outreach efforts in May, over the course of several weeks in June, EPA will conduct inspections of renovation, painting and property management companies in the area to assess compliance” with what is called the Lead Renovation, Repair and Painting (or RRP) Rule, the agency said in a statement Tuesday.

The 2010 law requires that “firms performing renovation, repair and painting … in homes, child care facilities, and kindergartens built before 1978” have to complete an eight-hour certification course on lead-safe practices and undergo hands-on training every five years for recertification. Contractors must then use those lead-safe practices on the job or face fines of up to $37,000 per day for violations.

Although Maine has contacted contractors and landlords to get them to attend the course, the EPA’s list of certified renovators in the state had only 1,160 names on it as of late 2015. There are 4,700 construction firms in the state, according to the U S. Census.

The EPA pursued only three enforcement actions under the law in Maine from 2010 to August 2015, and only 20 throughout New England during that period.

Sharon Hayes, the regional EPA staff member in Boston in charge of enforcing the law, admitted in 2015 to the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting that her agency was unable to comprehensively enforce it.

“This is absolutely a national problem, there’s not enough resources to do it adequately,” said Hayes.

“I’m sure we’re missing cases everywhere, not just Maine.”

The agency, Hayes said, instead is focusing on high-profile enforcement actions in specific cities with high childhood lead poisoning rates.

The EPA mounted two such actions in recent years, one in New Haven, Conn., and the other in Nashua, N.H. In New Haven, the agency said it completed a total of 65 inspections, 40 companies got formal certification to conduct lead-safe work and six companies were hit with enforcement actions that resulted in fines. Those companies, said the EPA, ultimately complied with the standards.

Now, the agency is turning its attention to Lewiston and Auburn, where children get lead poisoning at three times the rate of the rest of the state. The problem particularly affects the two cities’ poor children and Somali immigrant children, who represent a high proportion of residents in the downtown, where much of the housing is old and lead paint is common.

While lead poisoning cases have gone down dramatically in the past 20 years in Bangor, Portland, Saco, Biddeford and Sanford, the rates of childhood lead poisoning in Lewiston and Auburn have remained high. From 2009 to 2014, there were 467 Maine children identified as lead poisoned and 97 were from the Lewiston-Auburn area.

“Children’s exposure to lead continues to be a significant health concern here in New England,” Curt Spalding, the EPA’s New England regional administrator, said Tuesday. “This is especially true for kids who live in underprivileged areas and other places where there is a large amount of older housing stock that hasn’t been renovated and lead paint has not been removed.

“Our initiative in Lewiston/Auburn is designed such that EPA will work closely with our local, state and federal partners to address a serious public health problem affecting children,” he added.

A combination of federal and state laws is supposed to prevent children from getting poisoned by lead. But Maine has long lagged in its own efforts to prevent childhood lead poisoning from chipping and peeling lead paint in old buildings.

A 2015 investigation by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting found that five years after the state-adopted 2010 deadline to eradicate childhood lead poisoning, thousands of Maine children were still being poisoned by licking surfaces covered with lead paint dust, licking their fingers after touching lead dust or breathing in the lead dust in the air around their homes.

The Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting is a nonpartisan, nonprofit news service based in Augusta and can be contacted at:

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