AUGUSTA, Maine — According to the Maine Center for Disease Control, over the past decade more than 1,300 Maine children had high levels of lead in their blood. Last year, the Legislature responded by tightening the state standard for elevated lead levels. But seven months have passed, and supporters of the new standard say the state has yet to implement it.
Some point to the childhood lead poisoning crisis in Flint, Michigan, as a warning that Maine should move swiftly to protect children.
When a child in Maine is identified with lead poisoning, that’s often the first clue that there’s a lead problem in their environment, says Dr. Stephen Meister. He’s vice president of the Maine chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“The child becomes the canary in the coal mine,” he says.
It triggers a response from the state to find the source, which is often lead paint in old housing. It’s urgent to identify lead poisoning as soon as possible, says Meister, because it can cause permanent learning disabilities and behavior problems.
“We now know that lead levels even as low as 5 [micrograms per deciliter of blood] can cause developmental challenges,” he says. “So we want the lead level to be as low as possible to prevent the brain injury.”
No amount of lead exposure is considered safe. But last year, Maine lowered its threshold for lead poisoning from 15 micrograms per deciliter to 5, which matches the federal threshold.
Lawmakers also approved more than $1 million to implement the new threshold, by funding lead inspections and creating eight new positions in the state Center for Disease Control to make sure landlords follow through on lead abatement orders.
But that was seven months ago, says Greg Payne of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition.
“The new threshold isn’t being implemented at all,” he says. “The inspectors haven’t been contracted, the new staff — they have not started hiring them. No progress has been made.”
Democratic state Rep. Peggy Rotundo of Lewiston is also concerned. Lewiston-Auburn is one of four areas in the state with the highest rates of childhood lead poisoning. The others are Biddeford-Saco, Portland-Westbrook and Bangor .
“For us to have new standards in place, for the funding to be there to implement the new standards, and for us not to be doing everything we can right away to get those new standards into place is unconscionable to me,” she says.
Rotundo supported the new standards along with a bipartisan group of lawmakers that includes Republican Sen. Amy Volk of Scarborough. Volk says the Department of Health and Human Services has told her they’re in the process of writing rules for the new lead poisoning threshold.
“From what I’ve been told, they’re working on it,” she says. “Obviously, I would have preferred that we would have seen the rules by now.”
Payne says even if DHHS issued new rules tomorrow, there would be a four-month public comment period before they went into effect. But he says DHHS could choose a different route.
“They can take the express train when there’s an imminent threat to public health, and they can declare emergency rulemaking, and declare that the rule is in place immediately,” he says.
If there’s any question lead poisoning represents an imminent threat to public health, Payne says look no further than Flint, Michigan, where thousands of children have been poisoned from lead water pipes. Rotundo shares a similar view.
“This is a huge public health issue,” she says. “If we have learned one thing from Flint and the tragedy there, it’s the importance of doing everything we can to protect children from lead poisoning.”
A spokesman for the Maine CDC, John Martins, said in a written statement that the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC, has not considered emergency rulemaking, but hopes to propose new rules soon. Martins says the new regulations will make Maine’s lead intervention levels among the most stringent in the nation.