Too many kids are exposed to lead in these Maine towns

Many more Maine children are considered at high risk for lead poisoning under updated rules that are prompting an increase in home inspections.

In September, Maine implemented new guidelines for lead exposure among children that conform with federal recommendations. Now, state health officials intervene if a child has at least 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood, down from 15 micrograms under the old standard.

Health experts say that no safe blood lead level in children has been identified, but 5 micrograms is considered high enough that public health officials should step in.

That intervention includes inspecting the child’s home to detect the source of the lead. During the first eight months under the updated guidelines, 203 Maine children qualified for home inspections, more than four times the 47 who would have qualified previously, the Kennebec Journal reported.

The stairs of a Lewiston apartment building at 84 Walnut St., owned by Cirrus Capital, LLC, show extensive lead paint deterioration. On June 16, 2015, the city ordered the building to be demolished. City of Lewiston | MCPIR

Some public health advocates praised the change, but it’s been slow in coming. An investigation by the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting in 2015, five years after the state promised to eradicate childhood lead poisoning, found that thousands of Maine children were still being exposed through lead paint dust in and around their homes.

Lead exposure is a serious concern in Maine largely because our housing stock is among the oldest in the country. Sixty percent of homes in the state were built prior to 1980, when use of lead paint was widespread. (Lead-based paints were banned for use in housing in 1978). The paint poses a risk as it ages and deteriorates, creating dust that kids may pick up on their hands and put into their mouths.

Keith Dill (left) and Chris Bowden from Renovate Right Construction scrape lead paint on a Sabattus house and vacuum it with a HEPA vacuum. Dorothy Hastings | Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting

Paint is the most common way children are exposed to lead, but old water pipes, gasoline, and various consumer products are also potential sources.

Lead exposure can cause harm throughout the body, though it often occurs with no obvious symptoms initially. Children are particularly at risk — even low levels of lead in the blood have been shown to affect IQ, attention, and academic performance, according to the U.S. CDC.

In Maine, the CDC has identified five areas as high risk for childhood lead exposure, which you can see in the chart below.

Those are more urban areas where larger numbers of children under age 3 correlate to a higher risk for lead poisoning. Lewiston-Auburn has been particularly hard hit.

But the state CDC’s data, published here, also show a high share of children at risk in rural areas, particularly in Solon, St. George and Bristol.

Some have criticized the state’s policy of waiting for kids to test positive for elevated lead levels before intervening. While most states take the same approach, many of those children are from low-income or minority families who can’t afford to fix lead paint problems in their homes or buy a new place to live.

“It’s so expensive to rehab properties or mandate remediation by landlords, so we’re stuck waiting to get results on kids who are already lead poisoned … That’s an awful trade-off,” Gail Carlson, an assistant professor of environmental studies at Colby College, told the Kennebec Journal.

Jackie Farwell

About Jackie Farwell

I'm the health editor for the Bangor Daily News, a Bangor native, a UMaine grad, and a weekend crossword warrior. I never get sick of writing about Maine people, geeking out over health care data, and finding new ways to help you stay well. I live in Gorham with my husband Nick and our hound dog Riley.