DHHS: Lead testing at-risk N.H. rental homes could take 10 years

Monitor staff
Friday, October 13, 2017

The push to test lead levels in aging New Hampshire homes with children is one with bipartisan legislative support. But actually getting that testing accomplished, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, could take significant resources. 

At present staffing levels, it would take the department 10 years to assess the roughly 99,000 homes that New Hampshire survey data suggests could contain lead, representatives told legislators Wednesday.

Speeding up that process would requiring hiring dozens of licensed lead inspectors, the department found. To inspect all homes in five years would require increasing the staff from 18 to 36; to bring that down to a year would need a hiring swell of 165.

The estimates were presented during a House finance committee hearing on Senate Bill 247, which would increase testing on an children in an effort to eliminate lead hazards.

Lead paint, when ingested, can cause permanent brain damage and learning difficulties later in life; children and infants under the age of six are particularly susceptible.

Presently, all children enrolled in Medicaid between one and two years old must receive blood lead screening tests.

SB 247 – whose original sponsors include Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro and Dan Feltes, D-Concord – would extend those mandatory tests to all children, and would appropriate $6 million to a fund that would help homeowners carry out renovations to remove lead hazards from their own homes.

The push comes as concern has grown over the condition of the state’s aging housing stock. New Hampshire and other New England states have significant portions of homes built before 1978 – the year lead paint was first made illegal. Thirty-four percent of renter-occupied homes in New Hampshire fall into that category, according to DHHS.

The bill was tabled last session after objection landlords, who under present law are required to carry out abatements when a child living in the property tests positive for lead. Representatives of landlords argued that tightening the testing regulations will drive up rental costs.

But as representatives deliberated Wednesday whether to mandate universal testing, figures provided to the finance committee indicated that the present system has gaps of its own.

Of the children enrolled in Medicaid, only 52 percent of one-year-olds were actually tested by physicians in 2015. Of two-year-olds, even fewer were given the tests – 31 percent, according to the department.

Those numbers prompted exasperation from Rep. Neal Kurk, R-Weare.

“It strikes me as bizarre for at least the one year olds that there’s anything less than a hundred percent,” he said. “That would mean the doctor is ignoring both the medical report and the recommendations of the pediatric society. Eighty-five percent of us pay our income taxes. Why is it that doctors are less than that?”

John Williams, DHHS director of legislative affairs, said that the department would examine the matter, but added “It could be a situation of underreporting, for whatever reason. We’ll certainly clarify.

Other representatives said that more data is needed from the department.

Rep. Marjorie Smith, D-Durham, said the department needs to gather basic information on how many one- and two-year-old children exist in the state before projections can be made on property testing.

“How do you know what (properties) you’re surveilling if you don’t know the scope of your target audience?” she asked.

Beverly Drouin, administrator for the Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, the division within DHHS that administers the housing tests, said that the department would return to the committee with information to address questions.

But Drouin maintained that despite difficulties with implementation, testing the homes is worth the hassle. A third of lead poisoning cases, she said, nationally occur after homes are renovated and remodeled – dislodging ingestible dust and paint particles

“If we could make these homes lead safe, even if we increased the number of children we were testing, eventually the poisonings would go down,” she said.

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