The Dangers and Costs of Childhood Lead Poisoning in Maine

Understanding the severe and permanent harms to our children and the significant social and economic costs to everyone

Lead poisoning imposes a terrible cost on affected children, but it also results in staggering social and economic costs to everyone in Maine. ©Photo: Photo: tab62/Shutterstock

As part of Lead Poisoning Prevention Week, we’re revisiting this blog about the terrible costs of lead poisoning on children, as well as the social and economic costs we all bear as a result. While we focus on Maine in this blog, lead poisoning affects children and families throughout New England. Please help us raise awareness about the ongoing dangers of lead poisoning in Maine and New England as a whole.

More than 1,200 children in Maine were diagnosed with lead poisoning in just four years, between 2011 and 2015. Each of these children and their families faces an incredible uphill battle against the serious and long-lasting health effects of lead poisoning, which can include learning disabilities and lower intelligence.

What many of us don’t realize, however, is that these effects don’t end with the individual child. They also result in staggering social and economic costs to everyone in Maine, now and in the future.

CLF is advocating for a Maine free from lead poisoning. Because prevention is the key to achieving this goal, we are seeking to raise awareness about the severe dangers lead poisoning poses to the most vulnerable members of our communities – our children – and about the tragically high costs of lead poisoning on everyone.

Severe and Permanent Health Effects on Maine’s Children

The most troubling aspect of lead poisoning is the severe and permanent nature of the health impacts on our children. It is well documented by the scientific community, and confirmed by state and federal health authorities, that lead poisoning can result in learning disabilities, behavioral problems, hearing damage, language or speech delays, reduced motor skills, attention deficits, lower intelligence, kidney damage, and anemia. These harmful, long-lasting effects are most significant and pronounced in children under six years old because they are still growing and developing.

Children at a higher risk for lead poisoning include those living in homes built before 1978 (when lead paint was banned); those who have a brother, sister, or neighbor with lead poisoning; and those who regularly put non-food items in their mouths. Because Maine has so many homes built before 1978, our lead poisoning epidemic spans demographics. That said, Maine’s lower-income families, including many new Mainers, are bearing the brunt of the lead poisoning crisis because less expensive housing tends to be poorly maintained and subject to higher lead contamination.

Significant Social and Economic Costs for All Mainers

The lifelong health effects on the growth and development of our children are troubling enough, but lead poisoning also results in significant social and economic costs, now and in the future. Treating poisoned children generates enormous and long-lasting health care costs annually, amounting to tens of millions of dollars nationwide. Even higher costs are associated with remediating homes that contain lead paint. Abating lead paint hazards in a single housing unit can cost thousands of dollars – and Maine has thousands of units that require attention.

We must also look at special education costs for poisoned children. A national study on the economic impacts of lead poisoning concluded that the annual amount to provide special education to each poisoned child is nearly $15,000. It also found that ADHD caused by lead poisoning costs $267 million every year for drug and counseling therapy and parental work loss. There are also massive costs associated with the poorer education outcomes and lost future earning potentials of poisoned children. Another study, this one looking just at Maine, concluded that each new cohort of babies born annually in Maine could expect to earn as an aggregate $270 million less over their lifetimes as a result of the cognitive and neurological deficits related to lead poisoning.

Those are costs that none of us can afford.

Successes and Challenges in Maine

As we reported earlier, Maine is a leader among states because it has adopted the national Center for Disease Control’s standard for determining whether a child has lead poisoning (a lead blood level of 5 micrograms per deciliter). As a result, the Maine Centers for Disease Control reports that it’s identifying more lead hazards and more cases of lead poisoning.

That’s the good news because when lead poisoning is diagnosed early, it is very treatable. However, challenges remain. Among other things, we have a shortage of contractors qualified to perform lead hazard abatement. We also have capacity constraints at the laboratories that test blood samples for lead levels. What’s more, many primary care physicians do not perform or recommend screening of blood lead levels due to a misunderstanding of the rules and regulations concerning testing and of how common lead poisoning still is, especially because lead paint was banned 40 years ago.

At the same time, identifying more lead hazards and cases of poisoning is only one step in the new stricter law. State staff must also follow up on those hazards to ensure they are remediated effectively and promptly. But the State lacks the staff to enforce those orders adequately.

There is no time to waste on lead poisoning prevention: every day, more of our children are exposed to this dangerous toxin. Looking ahead, Maine needs to address these and other challenges, and it should pass legislation requiring universal screening in children one and two years old. CLF pushed for a similar law in New Hampshire, which the Governor signed in January of this year. Other New England states already have similar laws on the books. While screening of 100 percent of all children in those states has proven difficult, mandatory universal screening will put Maine on the path toward increased prevention, and ultimately a Maine free from lead poisoning.

Before you go... CLF is working every day to create real, systemic change for New England’s environment. And we can’t solve these big problems without people like you. Will you be a part of this movement by considering a contribution today? If everyone reading our blog gave just $10, we’d have enough money to fund our legal teams for the next year.