Landlords urged to address lead

Posted Feb. 26, 2010, at 8:14 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — Exposure to paint that contains lead continues to pose a significant health risk to Maine children. The Bangor area was identified recently as one of the most dangerous places in the state in terms of both the age of the housing stock and the incidence of childhood lead poisoning itself.

As a result, state officials are looking to partner with local landlords and social service agencies to promote the safe maintenance and renovation of older housing units, in hopes of preventing lead poisoning before it happens. In addition, landlords are being reminded of a new federal rule that takes effect April 1, requiring pro-fessional contractors who maintain or renovate housing where lead paint is present to have special training in preventing accidental contamination of children and others in the home.

“We know there is plenty of lead paint out there,” said Eric Frohmberg, director of Maine’s Childhood Lead Paint Poisoning Program. “Our goal is to teach landlords to find it and maintain it appropriately before a child gets poisoned.”

Frohmberg was at the Penquis agency in Bangor on Thursday, speaking to a group of about 30 local landlords about the issue. The event was one of several taking place around the state aimed at nipping the lead-paint problem in the bud. In addition to the Bangor event, Penquis is offering a lead-testing program for landlords, has grants available for lead paint mitigation and will be providing contractor training in lead-safe practices.

The number of Maine children with elevated levels of lead in their blood has declined over the past five years, but an estimated 120 youngsters are identified each year with 10 micrograms of lead or more per deciliter of blood. That’s the threshold at which the level is considered “elevated,” although there is no level that is deemed safe, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Lead, like other heavy metals, is associated with a broad spectrum of cognitive and neuromuscular disorders ranging from mild irritability to autism to severe mental retardation. Exposure to it may even lead to death. Young children and babies still developing in the womb are at the highest risk.

In the great majority of cases, children are exposed to lead in their homes or in the homes of relatives or other caregivers, in the form of paint dust and chips flaking off older surfaces such as windowsills, doorjambs and stair treads, and when renovations and maintenance activities disturb these surfaces. Ingested into the body through the lungs or the digestive tract, lead migrates into the blood and builds up in tissues and organs.

Health officials recommend that all children be screened for the presence of lead during their first year of life with a follow-up test the next year. Compliance rates are irregular and not consistently tracked.

According to data from the lead program, the Bangor area ranks behind Lewiston-Auburn and the Portland area in the percentage of children routinely screened for lead who are identified with elevated levels. Of the 2,096 Bangor-area children under 6 tested between 2003 and 2007, 41, or 2 percent, had elevated lead levels. That compares to 2.9 percent in Lewiston-Auburn and 2.1 percent in Portland. Statewide, the rate is 1.3 percent.

Maine has one of the oldest housing stocks in the nation, Frohmberg noted — a primary factor in assessing the likely presence of paint that contains lead. Any residential structure built before 1950, including private homes and apartment buildings, is likely to harbor lead-painted surfaces, he said. Statewide, about 36 percent of housing was built before 1950. In Bangor, nearly 52 percent is that old.

In addition to educating landlords about the hazards of lead paint in their rental properties, Frohmberg said, the state is partnering with agencies such as Penquis to provide simple test kits to detect the presence of the toxic substance, and with contractors to certify them in dealing with it. He noted that waiting until a child is identified with lead poisoning can have profound effects — not only for the affected child and family, but for landlords themselves, who may be forced to undertake full-scale abatement of their rental units at an estimated cost of up to $10,000 per unit.

On the Web: www.maine.gov/dhhs/eohp/lead

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