The approval three years ago by Gov. Mills and the Maine Legislature of L.D. 153, legislation previously vetoed by Paul LePage, is bearing fruit today by exposing the contamination of water by lead in schools all over Maine. At the time of his 2018 veto of L.D. 40, LePage stated: “If schools are unwilling to take advantage of free testing and the remediation funding now available to ensure proper public health, another statute is not going to make them do it.” This proved a missed opportunity.

Childhood exposure to lead is a problem in Maine because of a combination of paint from aging housing stock and contaminated soil and water. In its 2018 Update on Childhood Lead Poisoning and Prevention, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention stated that in 2017, 3 percent of children tested in Maine were newly diagnosed as lead poisoned. In 2017, then-state Sen. Rebecca Millett of Cape Elizabeth cited elevated water lead levels in Benton and Yarmouth as cause for testing the water in all Maine schools.

Many schools that Maine children attend were built before June 1986, when lead and solder in pipes were banned by Congress. According to the World Health Organization, school-aged children are particularly vulnerable to health and developmental problems after exposure to high levels of lead. Of particular concern is the effect on the developing brain, resulting in lower IQ, behavioral changes and reduced educational attainment. There is no known safe level of blood lead concentration. A Tufts University study published in the Maine Policy Review in 2010 ascertained that babies born in Maine each year could expect to earn $270 million less as a group over their lifetimes because of the neurological consequences of lead poisoning.

The good news is that lead poisoning is preventable. L.D. 153 set into motion the requirement for all schools to test drinking water for lead. Testing began last Oct. 1 and continues until May 31. The results of these tests are available to the public.

Earlier this month, our family received the community newsletter email from our superintendent notifying the school community that lead water testing results had been published online. My daughter’s district had been voluntarily monitoring for lead since 2017. Eighteen sinks in my daughter’s school were found to have elevated lead levels and were taken out of service given new, stricter requirements. York High School, North Yarmouth Academy, St. Brigid School, Boothbay Region Elementary School, Calais Middle-High School and many other schools throughout the state have water fixtures with elevated lead levels. It would have been easier to continue to ignore this problem; however, the Maine Legislature and Department of Health and Human Services took action. I am grateful that this threat to my child’s health and the health of her classmates, teachers and school staff is now identified for proper remediation.

The American Rescue Plan, the Biden administration’s bipartisan infrastructure bill, includes funds to replace all of America’s lead pipes and service lines. Given the expense of lead paint abatement and pipe replacement, which many homeowners in Maine are familiar with, this should come with a sigh of relief. The federal Environmental Protection Agency will allocate $3 billion in funding to states for lead service line replacement in 2022, and $350 billion from the State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund provided in the American Rescue Plan can be used for lead service line and lead faucet and fixture replacement. This money is necessary and vital to the health of Maine children.

Send in the plumbers. Maine kids deserve a government that takes action to protect their health and works as hard as their teachers to maintain the excellence of their schools.

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