Amid the COVID pandemic and spike in drug overdoses, a new study reminds us not to lose track of another widespread public health challenge: lead exposure in children.

It also reaffirms that above all the root of that toxic problem, among others, is the nationwide lack of affordable housing.

Through the last decades, wages for low-income Americans have failed to keep up with housing costs as our system fails to build an adequate number of new units in their price range.

That has forced many families into older, run-down apartments. In areas where that housing is particularly old, such as in many Maine communities, families are exposed to toxic lead — from pipes and soil, too, but mostly from lead paint, which poisons kids as it crumbles and chips.

Maine has the sixth-oldest housing stock in the country, with many homes containing lead paint. City of Lewiston photo via Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

The study, published last week in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Pediatrics, tells us the awful offshoot the housing shortage. About half of the 1.1 million kids under the age of 6 tested under the study had detectable levels of lead in their blood. About 2 percent had high levels.

The study’s authors believe the numbers generally are representative of the population as a whole. It’s hard to overstate the effect on our kids’ lives and the community as a whole.

Experts say there is no safe level of lead. It affects brain and nervous system functioning, leading to issues with behavior, hearing and speech. Its effects are irreversible.

Lead exposure is a problem nationwide. Though down dramatically since lead paint was banned in 1978, it still harms children at a inexcusable rate and costs billions of dollars in health care, special education and criminal justice.

In Maine, where about 30 percent of housing was built prior to 1950, it is a problem in a number of areas. In response in 2019, legislators passed and Gov. Janet Mills signed into law a requirement that all children be tested for lead at ages 1 and 2, which can help identify kids who need treatment and whose homes need to be fixed.

The state made great strides in raising testing levels after the law went into effect, but progress was slowed by COVID. The Maine Monitor reported this summer that testing progress had resumed and that the Mills administration was continuing to press pediatric offices to make it a priority.

There are also statewide and community-level abatement programs that can help rehabilitate old buildings with lead paint and pipes.

Lewiston-Auburn, with a high concentration of low-income households living in housing that has fallen into disrepair, is one of the areas where lead exposure is most prevalent.

But they are not taking it lying down. Community leaders have taken on the problem, with Lewiston setting a goal for a lead-free downtown. The city recently received a federal grant to redevelop housing in an area with a high concentration of lead exposure.

But with the funding available, it will take decades to entirely fix the problem, in Lewiston and throughout the country where the same problem has emerged.

In the meantime, too many kids will continue to live in housing that threatens their emotional and physical health.

Two years ago, Rep. Jared Golden, D-2nd District, unveiled a plan to reduce child lead paint exposure. President Biden’s plan to replace lead pipes as part of the infrastructure package is now under debate in Washington.

Both are helpful, but neither meet the scope of the problem. We have the resources to replace every housing unit in the country that is putting futures at risk.

There are a million good reasons to build more affordable housing. But none are better than making sure where they live isn’t making our kids sick.


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