The number of Maine households notified of childhood lead exposure has increased tenfold in the first year since the state implemented a new law designed to combat lead poisoning with early intervention.

Households representing 386 children were notified that the children had tested positive for lead exposure in the year that ended in September 2017. Under the new standard established by the law, that’s more than 10 times the number of households that would have been notified if the old standard had been in place.

Catching lead exposure early helps parents and landlords remediate lead found in buildings and can prevent harmful health problems caused by long-term exposure to lead. Lead poisoning in children can stunt brain development, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sometimes severely, and can affect “every system in the body.” Lead poisoning also can lead to stunted bone and muscle growth, nervous system and kidney damage, and hearing problems.

The law lowers the threshold to start intervention from 15 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood to 5 micrograms. The standard is now aligned with U.S. CDC recommendations, and it triggers parental notifications. Once lead levels are discovered, the state takes remediation efforts to remove lead hazards, such as lead paint, from the home. Lead paint was banned in the United States in 1978, but states such as Maine that have many older homes and apartments are more likely to have buildings where lead poisoning is a significant problem.

Most at risk are infants and toddlers, which is why pediatricians focus on testing lead levels at ages 1 and 2.

Testing under the new standard between September 2016 and September 2017 identified 386 children with elevated levels of lead. Only 34 of those children had more than 15 micrograms of lead – the old standard to notify households.

NEXT ON THE AGENDA: UNIVERSAL SCREENINGS

In many cases, homeowners or landlords are notified and the fixes are simple, such as painting over lead paint and vacuuming up lead dust, said Greg Payne, director of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition, one of the groups that lobbied for the new law.

Payne said the notifications are valuable because it can catch exposure in the early stages, before lead poisoning can take hold and cause the most damage to children. If more extensive remediation is needed, it could take $10,000 or more to fix the problem, Payne said. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is offering some grants to help property owners cover the cost of lead abatement.

Payne said part of the reason he became involved in lobbying for the new law was from personal experience. His family was living in Massachusetts 12 years ago when their daughter, Georgianna, was a toddler. Massachusetts had a law in place that mandated testing and remediation. When a window was replaced in Georgianna’s bedroom, the project kicked up lead dust and old paint, causing her to have elevated levels of lead. The testing alerted the family, enabling them to quickly fix the problem, and Georgianna is now a thriving freshman at Portland High School.

“We totally benefited from knowing,” Payne said. “We never would have figured it out if it weren’t for that Massachusetts law. She could have had severe delays in reading.”

Payne said the next bill to be proposed – likely for the 2019 session of the Maine Legislature – would be universal screening of infants and toddlers. Payne said currently only 28 percent of Maine children undergo the routine screenings.

“It’s a simple blood test,” Payne said. “And it could save many thousands of kids from needing special education services later.”

DECLINE SEEN IN MAINE YOUTHS TESTING POSITIVE

Data from 2011-2015 showed that the highest percentages of children testing above the 5-microgram level were 7.7 percent in Lewiston; 6.1 percent in Augusta and 6 percent in Auburn, according to the Maine CDC. The agency said it could not yet provide breakdowns by city or county for 2016-17 testing.

As overall awareness of lead poisoning has increased in recent years, and as new houses come on the market, the estimated number of Maine children 3 years old or younger testing positive for at least 5 micrograms of lead has declined from about 1,200 in 2003 to less than 400 in 2015, according to the most recent statistics available from the Maine CDC.

“I’m gratified to know that this new law is meeting its intended goal of helping children and families detect lead issues that otherwise would have flown under the radar. But there is so much more that needs to be done,” state Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, said in a statement.

Payne said that while much progress has been made, more needs to be done to protect children.

“We know that lead poisoning causes significant, irreversible harm to our children and negatively impacts their ability to learn,” he said. “The fact that state legislators came together across partisan lines and acted to better protect Maine families, as well as reduce long-term special education costs in our schools, represents an important step forward for Maine’s public health system.”

Rep. Jared Golden, D-Lewiston, said the new law demonstrates how important it is for the state to do more to address lead poisoning.

“This is severely damaging young lives, and it’s costing our communities millions,” Golden said.

Joe Lawlor can be contacted at 791-6376 or at:

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