Ten years ago, Lewiston’s Tree Streets Neighborhood was “ground zero” for childhood lead poisoning in Maine. Children living in century-old apartment buildings there suffered from rates of childhood lead poisoning at a level that was three times higher than the state average – in a state where rates were already well above the national average.  

The effects of lead poisoning are irreversible and stark. Exposure to lead is one of the most dangerous hazards to healthy child development and academic success. Elevated lead levels in children is associated with reduced IQ, behavioral problems and learning disabilities. Children who have been poisoned by lead are seven times more likely to drop out of school and six times more likely to become involved in the juvenile justice system. In large doses, it can even cause comas, convulsions, even death. 

So, it was welcome news last week when the Maine Centers for Disease Control released new data showing that between 2010 and 2020, Maine’s childhood lead poisoning rates were cut in half, from 4% of children tested to 2%, the largest share of that reduction in Lewiston and Auburn. During the same time period, the rate of children tested grew – from 50% to 60% for 1-year-olds, and from 30% to 45% for 2-year-olds.  

These achievements were not happenstance. Reducing the prevalence of lead poisoning in a state with some of the country’s oldest housing stock has taken the coordinated efforts of many, including federal and state officials, municipalities, nonprofit organizations, building owners, medical providers and parents. Through our own involvement, we at the John T. Gorman Foundation were fortunate to witness these collective efforts firsthand. 

At the state level, housing advocates and legislators worked with the CDC to strengthen protections for children. A law passed in 2015 lowered the amount of lead present in a child’s blood – from 15 micrograms per deciliter to 5 – that would trigger an intervention by the CDC. A second law passed in 2019 required lead testing for all of Maine’s 1- and 2-year-olds.  

In Lewiston, where the challenges were most steep, the collective effort to address lead poisoning has been robust. The city made eradicating lead poisoning a priority by stepping up enforcement efforts, rewriting demolition protocols and securing lead hazard reduction funds. Local nonprofits redesigned education and outreach efforts, expanded lead-safe housing options through models like cooperatives and formed a medical-legal partnership to protect families impacted by lead. Residents came together and designed a plan to replace old lead-filled housing stock with safe housing, new businesses, childcare and more. Sen. Susan Collins’ office helped to secure a large federal grant to support this transformation and today Lewiston Housing Authority and Avesta Housing are beginning construction on the housing portion of the plan. 

The responsibility to prevent lead poisoning does not belong to individual families alone. In Maine, we need every child to grow up and reach their full potential because the costs associated with doing less will be felt across our workforce, economy and social fabric for decades to come.  

A 2% lead poisoning rate is better than 4% but still too high; and if 45% of 2-year-olds are being tested, 55% are not. While not every community will need to take on the extraordinary efforts that Lewiston has, a collective approach is needed. There are things we can all do to move the needle further. 

  • Children should be screened for lead at 12 and 24 months, or at any age if they demonstrate unusual oral behavior, pica, developmental delays, behavioral problems, and ADHD, as well as unexplained illness, such as severe anemia, lethargy or abdominal pain. 
  • Homeowners and landlords should test their property for lead, starting with window and door frames, as well as staircase risers and pipes.
  • Policy makers can maximize federal funds and dedicate state dollars to expand lead abatement efforts in high-risk areas and increase the number of abatement professionals who can do the work. 

From the State House to our own houses, let’s keep up the momentum that has brought us this far. Let’s not stop until all Maine children are free from the hazards of lead.   

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