Linda Glass talks about lead poisoning

Dr. Linda Glass of Pediatric Associates in Lewiston addresses officials Tuesday at the medical practice about lead poisoning. Listening are state Sens. Ned Claxton of Auburn, left, and Nate Libby of Lewiston, who holds his 7-month-old son Charlie. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

LEWISTON — Physicians and state officials are gearing up to try to ensure the successful implementation of a new Maine law requiring lead screening of children ages 1 and 2.

Dr. Linda Glass, co-owner of Pediatric Associates of Lewiston, said the testing is a good way to detect exposure to high levels of lead in toddlers early on.

Since even “very, very small amounts” of lead paint can hurt a child’s brain development and other health impacts, she said, it is crucial to do more to prevent problems from cropping up that can’t be cured.

The director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Nirav Shah, said the state has seen a 70% reduction in lead poisoning among children in the past 16 years despite cutting the acceptable exposure level in half starting in 2015.

Even so, he said, more than 300 Maine children experience lead poisoning annually. He said his agency wants to slash that number to zero.

Until the Legislature approved the new testing requirement for young children this year, Maine had been the only New England state that didn’t require universal lead screening of children, one reason it had the lowest percentage of children in the region who had been checked for lead poisoning.

Nirav Shah

Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Steve Collins/Sun Journal

Little more than half the state’s 1-year-olds had been screened, records show, though Androscoggin County, which has pushed the issue, had checked two out of three children. Cumberland County, on the other hand, had screened only two in five youngsters.

State Sen. Nate Libby, a Lewiston Democrat, said lawmakers recognized the need for a change.

With the new law in place, he said, “Every kid of 1 or 2 will be tested from here on in.”

Glass said her office has a machine that can test blood samples on the spot during an annual physical to determine if there is excessive lead. It only takes about five minutes, she said, and has the advantage of allowing doctors to discuss results immediately with parents.

She said state officials do a good job of following up with any results that indicate concerns.

Shah said his agency is staffing up to make sure it can follow up with each child identified through the screening “to go straight to the source” and investigate homes for sources of lead.

One change in the past few years has led to a sevenfold increase in inspections: checking every apartment in any building where lead paint is found to find out if other children are at risk there.

He said the agency is also hoping soon to roll out the reporting of lead abatement orders to building owners, a way the public could find out about problem properties.

Glass said lead paint is the chief problem, especially in the older homes so common in Maine.

“We are at much higher risk than the rest of the country,” she said.

She said young children put their hands on windowsills and wind up with paint residue on them. They also teeth by chewing on the sills or the bars of old cribs, Glass said.

Sometimes, too, youngsters are exposed to lead paint when a house is torn down or from the yard of long-vanished homes that had lead paint.

On the federal level, U.S. Sen. Angus King joined more than 15 of his Senate colleagues to urge the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to ensure children across the country are tested.

In an Oct. 25 letter, King and other senators said that federal law has long required lead screening “as appropriate for age and risk factors” for children enrolled in Medicaid, who tend to live in places more likely to have peeling paint and other potentially dangerous conditions.

A recent study found the government did not have good data on how many of the children in the program have been screened.

“This is unacceptable,” the senators wrote.

In Maine, though, the law now requires all children to be screened, not just those on Medicaid. Shah said his agency is working to develop a system to make sure the screenings are done.

At this point, Shah said, it’s too early to say anything about compliance rates with the new law that took effect this summer.

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