Lewiston-Auburn, EPA battle high rate of lead poisoning among kids

Lead paint poisons children in Lewiston-Auburn

LEWISTON (WGME ) -- It's been called a silent danger and major public health concern: lead poisoning has declined overall in Maine, but continues to plague children in the Lewiston-Auburn area at a rate three times higher than the rest of the state.

In his new home, 19-month-old Kayleb can be a typical toddler.

"He's a smart little boy and he's hitting all his milestones perfectly," said his mom, Jennifer Darling. "He's a very smart boy."

Darling said they were recently forced to move after Kayleb tested positive for lead poisoning.

"It probably gets on his fingers when he's picking up his toys and putting his toys in his mouth," she said. "If a chip falls on the floor, he can get it."

Darling said their last apartment in downtown Lewiston had high levels of the toxic metal most commonly found in paint. She was doing her best to keep things clean, still, she said, the amount of lead in Kayleb's blood more than doubled in a matter of months.

"I was scared. I'm scared for his health," said Darling. "It could affect him, you know, have long term effects."

Darling isn't alone. According to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 467 children across the state were identified as having elevated blood lead levels between 2009 and 2013. Based on new testing standards, the most recent data estimates 358 affected children in just Lewiston-Auburn.

"I think lead is one of those silent, pervasive problems that impacts most kids," said Katie Boss, health program manager at Healthy Androscoggin, a community coalition aimed at education.

Kids under six are most at-risk for developmental delays and damaged organs.

Boss said it's one of their biggest concerns.

"Unfortunately, 45 percent of the houses in our community, or the units in our community, were built before 1950, which is really when lead paint was used," she said.

When that paint isn't maintained, it starts to chip, creating dust that gets into the air.

"Something like that door or that threshold, those are wear surfaces," said Travis Mills, who manages the Lewiston-Auburn lead program. "They get scuffed by feet every time someone opens or closes it."

Mills helps administer a $3.5 million federal grant that will clean up 225 units over three years.

"We've got about 49 units that have been completely cleared," said Mills. "We've got over 200 units that we've actually gone in and assessed."

He said it's not moving as quickly as they'd like, because there are a limited number of licensed lead abatement contractors.

"So, it's really the labor force to get this done that is kind of the bottle neck we're running into with the grant," said Mill. "It's slowing the process down."

In May, the Environmental Protection Agency launched an initiative to make sure the clean up work is done safely.

"People who work in these areas where there is a lot of lead paint have to be trained in how to minimize the risk to that family or that community, which means controlling the dust primarily as you move forward," said EPA Regional Administrator, Curt Spalding.

Spalding said the agency is reaching out to painters, contractors, property management companies and landlords. They'll start with education and then move onto enforcement.

"It is a serious matter," he said. "These penalties are not small, they are federal penalties under the federal Toxic Substance Control Act."

The EPA used a similar strategy in New Haven in 2014, and Nashua in 2015.

"We've seen declining blood lead levels in New England across the board. We'd love to take it to zero," said Spalding.

"We're making progress. We've got a long ways to go," said Mills.

In the mean time, Boss said tenants can live safely in a home that has lead by knowing where it is and taking precautions, like extra hand washing and testing.

"For example, if you know a surface is painted with lead you know to be careful. You can encase it. You can be sure to clean carefully with wet cleaning methods in that area, so there are definitley a lot of things you can do to remain safe in your home," said Boss.

Darling is glad she doesn't have to. Lead free windows and walls have restored her peace of mind.

"He can look out the windows whenever he wants, now I don't have to constantly worry," said Darling.

The hope is that Kayleb's lead levels will go down as he grows up.

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