May 6, 2016

By Patty Wight


Maine’s Department of Health and Human Services is on the cusp of expanding efforts to respond to the problem of lead poisoning.


It’s a welcome development for some who criticized DHHS earlier this year for failing to act more quickly in connection with a new state law that tightened lead poisoning standards and allocated $1 million toward implementation. There are also concerns about lead in drinking fountains in Bangor Schools.


In February, Greg Payne of the Maine Affordable Housing Coalition complained that DHHS had let more than half a year go by since the passage of a stronger state lead law, and had done nothing to implement its provisions. But now, he has changed his tune.


“We’re very encouraged at this point by the progress that’s being made,” he says.


In April, DHHS issued proposed rules for a new state standard that lowered the threshold for lead poisoning from 15 micrograms per deciliter down to 5. Payne says he’s particularly happy to see that the rules would penalize landlords who ignore abatement orders to rid their properties of lead.


“The ability to levy those kinds of daily fines on landlords who refuse to do right is an important part of making this work, and those are very strong in the draft regulations,” he says.


This week DHHS put out a bid for contracts for lead investigators. It plans to expand its current number of two contracts by five- or six-fold. Next week, the department will begin interviews to fill five new lead inspection coordinator positions — they’re the people who will review abatement orders and ensure they’re implemented.


Payne says all the necessary pieces of Maine’s lead law are finally coming together.


“That means that kids in Maine who would otherwise be dealing with some serious exposure issues to lead poisoning will have those issues taken care of sooner rather than later,” he says.


The Maine Center for Disease Control — the division of DHHS which oversees state lead programs — says it can’t comment on proposed rules or its process for hiring. But a spokesman did confirm that the provisions of the lead law will likely be fully implemented by September.


Meanwhile, this week a different lead issue bubbled up in Bangor.


“The Bangor School Department tested for lead. Four drinking fountains — two at 14th Street and two at the high school — were found to be slightly elevated, and they were discontinued until we can make the necessary repairs,” says Alan Kochis, director of business services for the Bangor School Department.


EPA action levels for lead in drinking water is 20 parts per billion. The Bangor samples ranged from 22 to 40 parts per billion.


The Bangor Water District’s Dina Page says the source of the lead is not from municipal water, but from plumbing or the fixtures themselves.


“Lead solder was used up until 1986, which is 30 years ago now,” she says. “But that plumbing, when water sits long enough in that plumbing, small amounts of lead can dissolve into it.”


A report from USA Today earlier this year found schools and day cares across the country have lead-contaminated water, often due to fixtures and plumbing. Page says both at school and at home with older fixtures, it’s a good idea to run water for a few minutes before using it.


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