Getting the Lead Out

Charlene Lovett takes on lead poisoning in her New Hampshire city

Laurie O'Reilly | @LaurieOReilly Conservation Matters Annual Report, Summer 2019

When the Flint, Michigan, water crisis made national headlines, it served as a wake-up call for many New England communities. Across the region, cities and towns began looking at the state of their own water systems to ensure they were safe and lead-free.

In Claremont, New Hampshire, a city of just over 13,000 near the Vermont border, Mayor Charlene Lovett took things a step further. “Lead levels in our water distribution system meet EPA standards, but we wanted to be more proactive,” she recalls. “We instituted operation ‘Get the Lead Out,’ an initiative to remove all lead components from the water distribution system.”

That meant going home by home and checking water service lines for lead. When it was found, those lines were replaced or homeowners were given free filters to protect them and their children.

But it was during a conversation with the state Department of Environmental Services that Lovett came to understand the true scope of the lead problem in New Hampshire. “They mentioned that water lines are not the primary cause of lead poisoning in the state,” she says. When she asked what is, they replied: lead-based paint.

In a city where 84 percent of the homes were built before the 1978 ban on lead paint, Lovett knew she had a problem on her hands. The more research she did, the more worried she became. An average of 40 Claremont children were poisoned every year – but those were only the cases actually diagnosed. Barely half of all 1-year-olds in Claremont were screened for lead poisoning annually. For 2-year-olds, the number dropped to 27 percent.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, any exposure to lead is dangerous, especially for children under 6 years old. Even low levels of lead exposure in toddlers can cause irreversible health problems, including IQ deficits and cognitive and
behavioral issues.

“It’s one thing to have the numbers,” says Lovett. “But we’re talking about 40 children in Claremont poisoned by lead – children who have been robbed of their full potential.” Lovett became determined to change the math in her city.

She began by rallying key stakeholders, including the city administration, Valley Regional Hospital, pediatricians, the local school board, and state agencies. “It was important to bring the community together so that we could agree on the severity of the problem and develop a plan to address it.”

Together, Lovett and her partners set three ambitious goals: to educate residents about lead poisoning, screen 100 percent of children every year, and prevent kids from being poisoned in the first place.

They worked with pediatricians to ensure that screening became a routine part of a toddler’s annual wellness checkup, brought mobile testing kits to community events, and began requiring any child entering pre-k or kindergarten to show proof that they had been screened for lead – a first-of-its-kind policy in New Hampshire.

They also began to tackle lead exposure at its source: homes and apartment buildings. Most poisonings occur during a renovation process, says Lovett, when lead paint is disturbed and its dust and residue can get into the air. “I’ve heard so many heartbreaking stories from parents who inadvertently poisoned their children. They didn’t know what they were doing.”

Lovett herself moved back to Claremont after 28 years to live in the same home she grew up in – a home built in 1900. “We know there’s lead-based paint in it,” she says. Her daughter was 8 years old when they moved into the home. Those parents who accidentally poisoned their children? “That could easily have been me,” she says.

The City worked with the trade industry to promote EPA’s “Renovation, Repair, and Painting” (RRP) certification, which ensures that contractors and painters know how to deal correctly with lead-based paint in older homes. They even incorporated the RRP training into the curriculum at the local trade school.

Today, parents line up for free lead screenings at community events, every incoming kindergartner is tested, and financial assistance is available to qualified residents to help them mitigate the risk of lead paint in their homes.

At the same time that Claremont was making headway with its efforts, a new law was working its way through the state legislature. Championed by CLF New Hampshire Director Tom Irwin and key allies, the law would require blood lead testing for all 1- and 2-year-olds in the state, lower the State’s regulatory action level, and address lead in drinking water in schools and childcare facilities.

Lovett was called on to testify about the bill before a legislative committee. “It was hugely helpful to have a city leader – one who had been advancing solutions on the community level – speak before the committee,” says Irwin. “It made the problem much more real for legislators.”

Following her testimony, Lovett and Irwin joined forces to gain the support of other city leaders. Ultimately, 11 of the state’s 13 cities backed the bill. In 2018, it passed with overwhelming bipartisan support.

Now, the two are partnering again to bring the lessons learned in Claremont to more New Hampshire communities. “Lead poisoning is a public health crisis,” says Irwin. “Claremont is ahead of most communities, and it’s helpful to have Mayor Lovett there to show what can be done.”

For Lovett, the key lesson from Claremont’s success is collaboration. “We know what the issue is, we know it’s preventable, and we know how to solve it,” she says.

There is still much more work to do, but Lovett and Irwin know that with cooperation, political will, and perseverance, they and their partners can and will succeed.

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