For the past four years, Tom Irwin has talked to countless people about the tragedy of childhood lead poisoning. Especially before the Flint crisis put lead issues back in the headlines, he often would be met with the incredulous response, “But haven’t we solved that problem already?”
It’s a fair question, says Irwin, director of CLF’s New Hampshire Advocacy Center. “We’ve known that lead is a dangerous toxin, especially for kids, for decades, even before it was banned from paint in 1978. But unfortunately, the answer to the question is still no.”
That answer frustrates Irwin because lead poisoning is an entirely preventable problem, so there’s really no good reason for why several hundred new cases are diagnosed in New Hampshire every year – nearly 750 in 2016, as reported in the State’s most recent data. According to the Centers for Disease Control, any exposure to lead is dangerous to children. When left untreated, even low levels of exposure can cause irreversible health problems, such as loss of IQ and cognitive and behavioral impairments.
Irwin himself was troubled to realize the magnitude of the lead poisoning problem after evaluating environmental justice (EJ) issues in New Hampshire in 2013. At the time, an anonymous donor had reached out to Irwin, wanting to know the most significant EJ issues facing the state and how they could help. But there was no clear answer to the question, because, unlike Massachusetts or Rhode Island, New Hampshire lacks an established EJ advocacy community. Irwin suggested to the donor that CLF conduct an assessment. The goal: to understand the key issues in the state and who they impact, and where advocacy needs were going unmet.
Irwin spent the next several months talking with stakeholders, from public health experts, to State employees, to city workers in the state’s largest cities, Nashua and Manchester. “I asked each person who else I should speak with and followed those leads,” he says. The interviews ultimately added up to about 35 people, who identified a range of issues that span the state’s rural and urban populations and echo those of EJ communities everywhere: substandard housing, transportation challenges, lack of access to healthy food, and poor working conditions.
But the issue of childhood lead poisoning stood out. With the oldest housing stock in the country, inadequate screening of children across the state, and a high rate of kids being exposed, New Hampshire clearly had a problem. And, while lead poisoning affects children across all demographics, it hits low-income and communities of color the hardest. “You’ve got kids who are already facing economic and other challenges,” Irwin says. “Add the permanent impacts of lead poisoning – learning deficiencies, attention deficit disorders, behavioral problems – and we’re just creating another barrier to breaking the cycle of poverty.”
While advocates had worked successfully on the issue in the past, lowering the State’s regulatory “action level” from a blood lead level of 20 micrograms per deciliter to 10, little progress had been made since. “New Hampshire’s laws weren’t up to the task,” Irwin says. “People working on lead were doing the best they could working within the system to protect our kids. But many said they had just been worn down and had given up on further improvements to our laws.”
Navigating the intricacies of law and policy, however, is what CLF does best. Irwin had already identified a core group of stakeholders through his assessment, and they soon began meeting to share information, develop a strategy, and engage in advocacy efforts.
“We knew we needed to update our laws to better protect New Hampshire kids,” Irwin says. In 2015, with Senator Dan Feltes as their primary legislative champion, they set out to do just that. But facing strong opposition to some key proposed changes, the effort resulted in only modest improvements to New Hampshire’s lead laws but also, importantly, the establishment of a Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention and Screening Commission.
Irwin, with other key stakeholders, became a member of the new Commission, which spent the next 18 months evaluating the problem before issuing recommendations. Its work became the framework of an ambitious new bill introduced in early 2017. Irwin knew this bill would be a tougher battle. In addition to requiring blood lead testing for all one and two year olds, it proposed aligning the State’s regulatory action level with the Centers for Disease Control’s recommended level of 5 micrograms per deciliter, addressing lead in drinking water in schools and childcare facilities, and establishing a fund to assist landlords in eliminating lead hazards.
Last May, after a series of public hearings, committee meetings, and successful votes by the New Hampshire Senate and House, the bill stalled in the House Finance Committee. Irwin was concerned. “That’s typically a troubling sign for any piece of legislation,” he says. “But instead, with strong legislative champions like Representative Frank Byron, the committee worked to make the bill stronger.” After taking up the legislation again last fall, the Finance Committee sent it back to the full House for a vote in early January. It passed with overwhelming bipartisan support before being approved by the Senate. In February, Governor Sununu signed the bill into law, with Irwin and his partners looking on.
Even when things looked positive, Irwin took nothing for granted. The stakes were too high. “There were numerous champions for this bill, from elected officials to public health and housing advocates, to affected families who were willing to share their stories,” he says. “Citizen advocacy was also crucial. CLF’s New Hampshire constituents repeatedly stepped up to voice their support and make it clear to legislators that action
Irwin isn’t pausing to savor this victory for long, however. “There’s more work to do,” he says. “Too many people don’t understand the hazard that’s lurking in their home. Unsafe renovation practices pose a threat, and lead in water deserves more attention. And kids will still fall through the cracks of the stricter testing requirements. We need to address those issues proactively.”
Persistence, partnership, and policy expertise have been key to Irwin’s success in strengthening New Hampshire’s lead laws. But it all started by simply being willing to listen. As a result, many more kids in the Granite State have a shot at a healthy childhood.