Imagine three granules of sugar. That’s how little lead dust it takes to poison a child, causing lifelong learning and behavior problems.

Yet current Maine law allows three times the federal standard for the amount of lead in a child’s blood before a public health response is required. That’s why legislators must consider tougher standards that are consistent with the federal threshold, protecting many more children in our state.

In Maine, lead poisoning is a significant problem. In some communities, the rates of children exposed to lead are well above even the state average. Lewiston has rates that are three times the state average.

The impairment caused by a child breathing or ingesting even minuscule lead particles is irreversible. Lead harms children’s nervous systems and is associated with reduced IQ, behavioral problems and learning disabilities. In large doses, it can cause comas, convulsions and death.

Exposure to lead is one of the most dangerous hazards to healthy development and academic success. To succeed in school, children need nurturing families, terrific teachers, enriching opportunities and high-quality health care.

But our best efforts to provide these necessary components are often thwarted — especially for low-income children, who are most likely to live in homes with chipping, peeling, lead-based paint. Children who have been poisoned by lead are seven times more likely than others to drop out of school and six times more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system.

Communities can do a lot to prevent lead exposure in the first place. For example, with the support of the John T. Gorman Foundation, Lewiston has taken several steps over the past two years to address the high rates of lead poisoning. As a result, Lewiston has increased lead screening rates among children by more than 50 percent. We’re optimistic that the city is on its way toward making a measurable dent in its lead poisoning rates.

Another important outcome of the increased focus on lead has been the collaboration among partners in Lewiston and Auburn who work on housing, health and economic issues. They came together with a shared mission to reduce lead exposure and asthma rates among children in the community and have expanded their mission to include other home health hazards.

While some proactive steps have been taken, communities and the state must do more:

• Children should be screened for lead at 12 and 24 months or at any age, if they demonstrate unusual oral behavior, pica (persistent and compulsive cravings to eat nonfood items such as dirt), developmental delays, behavioral problems and ADHD, as well as unexplained illness, such as severe anemia, lethargy or abdominal pain.

• Child-care providers and teachers should be aware of the signs and alert families if exposure is suspected.

• Communities disproportionately affected by lead should mobilize health, housing, education and medical stakeholders.

• Policymakers should support efforts to make communities safer places for kids to grow and thrive, such as proposals to reduce the threshold for triggering environmental investigations.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a public health intervention for children who have blood-lead levels at 5 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood or greater; yet, here in Maine, there is no mandated intervention or investigation until children have levels at 15 micrograms/dL — three times the CDC’s threshold.

This is unfortunate given that even these tiny amounts of lead take a terrible toll.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes that blood-lead levels well below 10 micrograms/dL cause adverse cognitive effects, including lower scores on standardized reading and math tests. In fact, the steepest decline in IQ point loss among children with lead exposure happens between 5 and 10mg/dL.

If we can catch kids before they suffer the effects of lead exposure, we can give them a better shot at a brighter future.

Nicole Witherbee is chief program officer for the John T. Gorman Foundation, and Dr. Pamela Dietz is associate residency program director at The Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital at Maine Medical Center.

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