Sununu throws support behind lead poisoning prevention bill

  • Gov. Chris Sununu speaks in support of Senate Bill 247, a bill to address lead hazards in New Hampshire homes. Ethan DeWitt / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Wednesday, January 03, 2018

It wasn’t the type of move she’d ever planned for. But when Jessica Livingston first learned of the abnormally high levels of lead in her 1-year-old, she and her husband, Paden, knew leaving was the only option.

In September, with a 25-microgram-per-deciliter reading in their son’s blood – 15 micrograms above the acceptable level – the Livingstons sought a quick escape. After a frantic, frustrating search, the family finally found a rental home in Bow, free from lead hazards, where they live today.

On Tuesday, standing before Gov. Chris Sununu and a bipartisan group of legislators, Jessica Livingston rose to share her ordeal, and to champion a bill she said could have prevented it from happening.

“We were living in a house that was literally poisoning our children,” she told the crowd.

Senate Bill 247 is a yearlong effort to address what sponsor Dan Feltes has called New Hampshire’s “hidden health problem” – the Granite State has some of the oldest housing stock in the country, and about 62 percent of homes were built before lead paint was banned in 1978.

Household lead paint hazards pose particular dangers to young children, who crawl around close to the floor and often bite and inhale paint chips or dust. If ingested, lead, a neurotoxin, can create permanent developmental problems that may not manifest for years.

SB 247 seeks to alleviate the number of lead cases by, firstly, creating a universal testing regimen in which providers must offer blood testing to all 1- or 2-year-olds, unless the parents choose to opt out.

The bill also aims at the source of the lead itself – the housing stock – by lowering the threshold at which the state must carry out tests of an apartment, at which point landlords are mandated to remove lead hazards. That threshold, determined by test results from tenants’ children, is now set at a lower level of micrograms per deciliter than present: from 10 micrograms to 7.5.

To help landlords cope with the costs of lead removal, known as abatement, the bill has set aside $6 million for a guaranteed loan program available to help landlords finance up to 60 percent of the cost of repair.

Speaking Tuesday, Sununu championed the bill, calling it an effective tool against the problem and predicting it could put New Hampshire at the forefront of the effort.

“It’s really about the kids,” he said. “It’s about the children. It’s about making sure that families have those resources available to make sure that their feet are on as healthy a path as possible.”

Not everyone is happy with the bill. Some landlords have complained that the abatement costs would squeeze them financially and force higher rents, exacerbating the state’s affordable housing crisis. Others have supported the bill as a way to address a growing problem head-on and avoid legal liability.

But Rep. Frank Byron, a Republican, said the addition of the loan program found necessary common ground between the concerns.

“I believe that this bill balances both the fixing of our problem with children being exposed to lead, and it also balances out the impact that it could have on landlords,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro – who co-sponsored the bill with Sen. Feltes, a Concord Democrat – dusted off a favorite aphorism to describe the bill.

“Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” he said. “We made compromises, not everyone got everything they wanted, but at the end of the day ... we’ve done a really good job on the financing piece of this.”

The bill, which passed the House Finance Committee nearly unanimously, heads to the House floor this week.

Livingston said passing it could go a long way.

“This bill is too late to prevent my children from being poisoned by lead,” she said. “But it’s our family’s hope that by speaking out and supporting this bill, we can prevent other New Hampshire children and families from enduring the anguish that we have.”

(Ethan DeWitt can be reached at edewitt@cmonitor.com, or on Twitter at @edewittNH.)