AUGUSTA, Maine — A bipartisan group of Lewiston-Auburn lawmakers is again asking the Maine Department of Health and Human Services to pick up the pace on implementing new lead-poisoning standards that were passed into law more than eight months ago.
The change, which would see Maine conform with federal standards for children, could set in motion remediation efforts for dozens of buildings in the Twin Cities.
Lawmakers say the issue should be treated as a public health emergency based on recent events in Flint, Michigan, but DHHS instead has moved to a rule-making process that could take another four months to implement.
The new law lowers the threshold that determines when a child is considered to be lead-poisoned, setting the standard at 5 micrograms per deciliter of blood. The current standard is 15 micrograms per deciliter.
Local lawmakers say every day that goes by without implementing the new standards means low-income families and others who live in some of the Twin Cities’ oldest housing stock face exposure to a known neurotoxin that’s causing irreversible brain damage to children in their communities.
Since September 2015, lawmakers twice have asked DHHS for information on why the department has not taken action to implement the new standards.
The second letter from lawmakers, dated Feb. 23, so far has gone unanswered, DHHS spokeswoman Samantha Edwards confirmed Wednesday. Edwards wrote in an email message that the department did not receive the letter until March 2.
Rep. Peggy Rotundo, D-Lewiston, said the department did respond to a September 2015 request for information and told lawmakers the new rules were drafted for implementation and were sitting on “someone’s desk waiting for approval.”
“This has been dragging on for months now,” Rotundo said.
Rotundo’s home city is among those that have a high rate of lead poisoning in low-income children. Lewiston and Auburn combined have been referred to as the “epicenter” for lead poisoning in Maine by public health advocates and those who advocate for affordable housing.
Rotundo said the delay on new rules and new standards as well as a delay in hiring four additional staff members at DHHS to help implement the standards, which would help cities and towns identify buildings in need of remediation, was inexcusable.
Sen. Eric Brakey, R-Auburn, who also signed the Feb. 23 letter to DHHS, said he wanted to see action from the department because neighborhoods in his city are affected by lead poisoning.
“I supported the bill; lead poisoning is a real problem in some of the older housing stock we have in the Lewiston-Auburn area,” Brakey said.
Testimony on the original bill from Maine doctors and other health care experts said the latest data on lead is clear and that the sooner lead poisoning is detected, the better the chances are that long-term neurological damage can be prevented.
Also testifying in favor of the bill was Lewiston Mayor Robert Macdonald, who told the committee he sees the effects of lead poisoning on low-income children in his city.
Sen. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough, sponsor of the original legislation, said Wednesday that she, too, was disappointed but was under the impression DHHS was beginning to craft new rules and implement them.
Volk said she was told DHHS did not want to move to emergency rule-making on the new standards because department officials felt there should be a public hearing on the new rule. That process would allow those affected by the new rules, such as local landlords, a chance to give feedback to the department before implementation took place, Volk said.