By Amy Harris 

Lead poisoning disproportionately impacts refugee and other newcomer children resettled in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For some, lead poisoning predates their arrival in the U.S. For others, life here exposes them to unhealthy levels of lead.  

All refugees receive a comprehensive medical examination within 90 days of their arrival in the U.S., and lead testing – at least for children – is usually a standard part of this evaluation. According to Elizabeth Jackson, Chief Administrative Officer at Greater Portland Health, refugee children arriving in the U.S. tend to have higher blood lead levels than U.S.-born children. 

The National Low Income Housing Coalition found that only 41 affordable and available rental homes exist in Maine for every 100 extremely low-income renter households. In other words, low-income renter households don’t have enough safe housing options.  

Lead poisoning sources in Maine include chipping paint or old lead paint in homes that were built before lead paint was banned in 1978. Maine’s old housing stock is partially to blame – the state has the seventh oldest housing stock in the nation, with 36% of homes built before 1950. Another common source of lead is drinking water, if it is delivered through old lead pipes, faucets, or plumbing fixtures. And because lead does not break down over time, soil in yards or along roads may still hold lead from the days when gasoline contained lead, or as a result of flakes of lead paint from old industrial sites, factories, and houses. 

Sometimes consumer products such as toys, jewelry, antiques, cosmetics, imported foods, or traditional medicines may contain lead. Formula made with water that passes through lead pipes can cause lead poisoning in babies. And parents or caregivers who work with lead-based products – such as those who renovate Maine’s many older homes, or auto body repair shop workers – may also inadvertently bring lead into their home on their clothes, shoes, skin, hair, and hands. 

“Lead poisoning presents a serious risk for Maine children, especially given the increased likelihood of lead paint in our relatively old housing stock. Those less likely to be aware of this problem, including immigrant families who may not be familiar with the presence or dangers of lead-based paint in older homes, are particularly at risk. It is critical for parents to make sure that their young children get tested, because doing so can help prevent numerous, irreversible health and developmental problems.” 

– Greg Payne, Senior Advisor on Housing Policy, Governor’s Office 

Lead exposure can happen by touching, swallowing, or breathing in lead or lead dust, and because young children put everything in their mouths, and crawl on their hands and knees close to the ground, they are most likely to get lead poisoning. In 2019, Maine lowered the lead poisoning threshold of what is considered dangerous and increased testing in young children to try to address this preventable public health crisis. 

The symptoms of lead poisoning are subtle; signs and symptoms may not develop until levels are dangerously high. But lead can affect every single organ and system in the body, and if lead poisoning happens to children who are younger than 6, lifelong health consequences can result. Lead damages young brains and nervous systems, resulting in slowed growth and development, learning and behavioral problems, and hearing and speech problems. Long-term risks are lower intelligence, difficulty paying attention, and decreased academic achievement. 

Some of the most commonly reported symptoms of lead poisoning are irritability, excitability or hyperactivity, loss of appetite, feeling tired, belly pain, constipation, difficulty sleeping, and even a desire to eat things that aren’t food – such as paint chips, dirt, or ice. And adults with lead poisoning can have high blood pressure, joint and muscle pain, headache, difficulty concentrating, memory problems, and mood changes. Men with high lead levels have lower sperm count, and women with lead poisoning suffer higher rates of miscarriage, preterm birth, and even stillbirth. 

“It is important to know that your child may not show any outward signs of lead poisoning – which is why it is important to test them at both 1 and 2 years when they are putting things in their mouth. Maine state law requires this.” 

– Dr. Laura Blaisdell, public health pediatrician and researcher, Maine Medical Center 

Because lead poisoning is so common and can have lifelong consequences, Mainers who have young children or who live in older housing should speak to their doctors and ask to test the children for lead exposure. The state now requires lead tests for children at ages one and two. 

The lack of access to affordable, safe housing remains a major cause of childhood lead poisoning for all people living in poverty, including many people of color. Between 2016 and 2020, close to 40% of cases in Maine were in Lewiston/Auburn, Portland, Westbrook, Bangor, Saco/Biddeford, and Sanford, according to the Maine CDC. And within those areas, the vast majority of cases involved children living in substandard rental housing. 

Lead poisoning is preventable. Maine law gives all tenants the right to live in safe and decent housing; landlords are legally required to maintain properties to safety standards that include the removal of lead paint and the replacement of lead pipes. But many families don’t report lead poisoning for fear of becoming unhoused, compromising their immigration status, or being blacklisted from renting another home – even after their children develop health problems. Other barriers preventing Maine’s immigrants from speaking up about lead exposure are language barriers, lack of access to healthcare, not understanding their legal rights as tenants, or not having adequate finances to change apartments and pay additional deposits on short notice. 

Parents and community leaders can become advocates for their family’s health and well-being by taking preventative measures, pushing for regular environmental lead testing, watching for symptoms of lead poisoning, and raising awareness about this preventable public health tragedy. 

How to protect your family 

  • Feed your family foods with high levels of calcium, iron, and vitamin C. These nutrients help lower blood lead levels and can lower the risk of lead poisoning. Dairy products and leafy green vegetables are high in calcium; red meat, beans, and some cereals are high in iron; citrus fruits and green and red peppers are high in vitamin C. 
  • Wash young children’s hands, toys, and pacifiers often with soap and water. Always wash hands before eating and sleeping. 
  • Talk with your pediatrician about lead testing for your children. 
  • Contact the Maine Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory to have your water tested for lead; (207) 287-2727. 
  • Call the Maine State Housing Authority to have them test your home and the soil around your home for lead; (800) 452-4668. 
  •  If you are pregnant or have young children under the age of 6, test your home frequently with a free lead dust testing kit from the Maine CDC. 
  • If your job might expose you to lead, remove all clothing and shoes outside your home before entering. 
  • Know your rights as a Maine renter. Pine Tree Legal Assistance can help; (207) 774- 8211. Multilingual staff are available.