This month, Phish drummer Jon Fishman drew national attention to the pervasive threat of lead poisoning when he talked about what happened after a 2014 physical revealed elevated lead levels in his toddler son’s blood from lead in their Lincolnville farmhouse. A $30,000 home remediation solved that family’s lead problem, thankfully — but 75 miles west in Lewiston, I am surrounded by hundreds of families who aren’t so lucky.

Last week was National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, an opportunity to come together to figure out how to reduce lead exposure and raise awareness of the plague of lead contamination in our communities. But as a landlord and a father in one of the most heavily lead-polluted communities in Maine, it is just one more week that I get down to work removing this dangerous toxin from the homes where thousands of kids grow up.

As in nearly every town and city in Maine, the housing stock in Lewiston is lousy with deteriorating lead paint that flakes off walls, settling into the air and wreaking permanent developmental damage on the kids who inhale it. This is a crisis I knew little about until a few years ago, when I began buying, rehabilitating and renting out abandoned properties in Lewiston.

Now I know that about 25 percent of U.S. homes have significant lead-based paint hazards, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and that a dime-sized chip of lead paint tastes like a Nilla wafer to a child. That’s all it takes to spike blood lead levels, and kids with lead poisoning enter school with diminished reading and learning abilities, display aggressive or violent behavior and drop out of school at a rate seven times greater than their peers.

Lead is so endemic that a child living in one of my lead-free properties tested positive for lead as the result of the cookie-sized chips of paint flaking off the exterior of the building next door. I recently bought that building, too — considered the worst lead hazard in the state of Maine — and am in the process of making it a healthy and livable space.

I am proud that I have been a part of creating safe, lead-free places to live for more than 125 Lewiston children. But I am appalled by the seeming lack of national urgency around tackling a problem that is so widespread, so devastating — and relatively simple to fix. Every year in this country, more than half-a-million children under the age of 6 are poisoned by lead through water, paint, soil or other everyday materials.

And given the current low rate of investment in reducing exposure to lead, U.S. children who have yet to be born will still be getting poisoned decades from now, even though we have the knowledge and the tools to keep every kid safe from lead today. And if the harm to children doesn’t get you, it’s also worth noting that addressing the short- and long-term ramifications of lead poisoning costs taxpayers thousands of dollars annually.

Thankfully, organizations like the nonprofit Green & Healthy Homes Initiative are spearheading a campaign to eradicate lead contamination in this country in the next five years — not the next 10 years, or 20 years. And I am grateful that leaders like Sen. Susan Collins have been forceful in tackling this persistent scourge on our communities and shining a spotlight on how much we can accomplish if we find the will. We need more advocates like these: We need to all be advocates ourselves.

This year, let’s not allow National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week to be just a mark on the calendar along with National Donut Day and National Sweater Day. Let this be the week that we acknowledge how much there is still to do, remind ourselves we have the tools to do it, and commit to finally ending the toxic legacy of lead poisoning for every child in America.

Jay Allen is a landlord in and a resident of Lewiston.

filed under: