AUGUSTA — Bills that aim to improve testing for lead in children went before the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee on Tuesday and most people who testified at the public hearing spoke in favor of the measures.

Maine is the only New England state that does not require a universal blood test for lead in all infants, but bills by Rep. Victoria Morales, D-South Portland, and Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston, would make testing mandatory for 1- and 2-year-olds across the state. Morales’ bill would go a step further, and also test 6-year-olds. Currently, testing is only required for 1- and 2-year-olds in the Medicaid program. Children who have private insurance are not part of that mandate, although many pediatricians routinely test children regardless of whether they have Medicaid or private insurance. Doctors are currently required to ask all parents whether their children are at risk of being exposed to lead by asking about the age of their residence and other questions. But according to Tuesday’s testimony, it’s not clear how many pediatricians are doing the assessments.

Maine’s housing stock is old and many homes and apartments still have lead paint. Lead paint that is painted over is considered much more safe, but peeling paint can re-expose old lead paint and threaten children.

Lead paint was banned in the United States in 1978. Lead exposure in infants can lead to a number of health and developmental problems, including learning disabilities, behavioral problems and seizures, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

About 500,000 children have levels of lead in their blood that is considered dangerous, the U.S. CDC says.

Nearly 1,800 children in Maine have had lead poisoning over the past five years, and another 853 children were likely poisoned but were not screened, according to research released last week that was conducted for the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition.

“Lead poisoning is one of the most damaging environmental diseases, yet it is the most preventable,” Morales said. “This is a no-brainer for me.”

The Maine CDC supports improved testing, but does not agree with testing 6-year-old children because by then children are less likely to have “hand-to-mouth” exposures, and so the testing for that age group is considered unnecessary, said Andy Smith, the Maine CDC toxicologist.

Smith said the Maine CDC would support testing 3- to 5-year-old children. He said 28 percent of all Maine homes were built before 1950, and 90 percent of all children with lead poisoning lived in homes built before 1950.

Smith said more testing will help identify and prevent health risks for children, and results in a safer housing stock.

“The identification of a lead-poisoned child triggers statutory requirements that (DHHS) inspect dwellings for environmental lead hazards and order identified lead hazards to be removed,” Smith said.

Georgianna Payne, a sophomore at Portland High School, said she was exposed to lead as an infant in Massachusetts, but because that state required testing for all infants, her parents were able to limit her long-term exposure when elevated lead levels were discovered when she was 1.

“It was caught early enough that we were able to avoid the damage,” Payne said. “We found the source of the lead, and because of that I was spared very severe changes to my brain that would have slowed down my learning significantly.”

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

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