Maine lags in implementing tougher lead poisoning law

Posted Feb. 01, 2016, at 5 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 02, 2016, at 9:19 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — A new state lead-poisoning standard passed into law in 2015 is sitting in limbo, according to lawmakers and advocates who say Maine should move quickly on the change to more readily protect children from exposure to the neurotoxin.

The change, based on legislation sponsored by Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, and Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, would see Maine match the federal blood-level standard for lead poisoning of 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood. Maine’s current standard is 15 micrograms per deciliter.

Based on the latest science, the measure was broadly supported by Democrats and Republicans, including Lewiston’s conservative Mayor Robert Macdonald, who testified in support of the change last year.

Greg Payne of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition said he hoped the state’s Department of Health and Human Services would have moved more quickly to implement the change and questioned the lack of urgency about what many see as a significant public health risk.

Payne said recent events in Flint, Michigan, and lead poisoning in the city’s water supply there should serve as a wakeup call for Maine officials on the issue and prompt them to action.

“There’s not a sense of urgency going on here,” Payne said. “I feel like one of the lessons we are learning from Flint right now is that lead exposure is a big deal and it has severe consequences for the health and well-being of kids and their education and their futures. I think one of the lessons is it can’t be treated casually, it has to be dealt with urgently.”

Volk said Monday she learned part of the delay was because the Maine Center for Disease Control, an agency within DHHS, had drafted the new rules, but there were errors in that draft that needed correction.

Volk said the new rule would give Maine the toughest lead-poisoning standard in the nation. In the meantime, the state’s previous standards remain in place.

“This is a lower standard and, obviously, we need to implement it as soon as possible,” Volk said, “but it’s not as though we are in a position like Flint, Michigan.”

“The effects are irreversible, and it would be nice to start using this additional funding to abate buildings where there are problems,” Volk said. “It also gives the department increased authority to crack down on landlords who have been ordered to abate buildings and are not. So I think they would want to start doing that as well.”

Rotundo said the legislation leading to the new standard was funded, including resources for Maine CDC to increase its staff as well as additional funding to help property owners and landlords remove or abate the sources of lead in a child’s environment.

She also said the legislation passed with broad bipartisan support, including finding an additional $1 million a year the state will spend on abatement programs as a result.

The new lower blood-level standard means more children and, subsequently, more apartments and homes will be identified as having a lead problem that will need to be remedied, Rotundo said.

“The stricter the standards are, the more children you will protect,” Rotundo said. “So the longer it takes us to put those strict standards in place, the greater the possibility will be that more children will be negatively impacted. I think if this were a top priority, it could move along very quickly.”

Rotundo also said the events in Michigan should make Maine health officials step up the pace of implementing the new lead standards.

“This has been very much on people’s minds because what’s been happening in Flint,” Rotundo said. “So I hope the administration can resolve this very soon.”

John Martins, a spokesman for the Maine CDC, wrote in an email Monday that the agency was working on implementing the new standards and would formally propose the new rules soon.

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