Our turn: Lead fears become reality

For the Monitor
Friday, December 22, 2017

We are writing to tell you about a significant, preventable environmental health problem for children living in New Hampshire: lead poisoning. We are a family of six with two teenagers and two toddlers, so as you can imagine, there are rarely any dull moments in our lives. Recently, our lives were completely shaken following our one year old’s regular checkup when we learned that he had high levels of lead in his blood.

According to the State of New Hampshire, an acceptable amount of blood to have in a child’s blood from age 0-6 is 10 micrograms per deciliter (According to the Center for Disease Control, it is actually 5 MGD). Our one year old son had a count of 25 micrograms per deciliter, which is extremely volatile.

Needless to say, this was a complete shock to our family. We have a 3-year-old as well and at his one-year appointment, he had a count of 4 MGD but wasn’t tested again at age two despite DHHS’s recommendation. Children ages one and two are the most vulnerable when it comes to lead poisoning. The red blood cells in a child’s body cannot tell the difference between lead, calcium and iron. Instead of bringing the calcium and iron to the areas of a child’s body that need to be developed, the cells bring the lead instead, which impairs the child’s development. As experts have discovered, no amount of lead is safe, and even small amounts can mean permanent, irreversible harm, including diminished cognitive ability and increased behavioral problems.

Our son was ingesting lead from the apartment where we lived. When we moved in, our rental management company gave us a pamphlet from the EPA and had us sign a one-page document acknowledging that the house was built before 1978 and there “may” be lead in the paint. This minimal requirement is the standard under the state’s current laws regarding lead. It’s not only chipping paint that is an issue, but places where abrasions occur, such as doors and windows. When they open and close, they create dust that gets into the air and everything in your home.

When a child under 6 is diagnosed with more than 10 micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood, the state lead program is notified and your child is assigned a nurse case manager and the state lead inspector conducts an inspection to determine the source of the lead. If they find that the home is the source, then they issue an order of abatement to the landlord.

Our rental management company sent their own risk assessor to our apartment to test for lead and he found contamination levels more than nine times higher than they should have been in every single piece of wood that had been painted, including the door to our 3-year-old’s bedroom, which was so bad that it had to be removed. The inspector told us to “keep the children away from everything that was painted white.” The entire apartment was painted white.

Obviously, as parents, we were horrified. We were living in a space that was literally poisoning our children. We started looking for a place to move as soon as possible. Well, as a family of six in the winter, there was not much to choose from. Not to mention that New Hampshire has the oldest housing stock in the country, with 62 percent of homes built before lead was banned from paint in 1978.

We looked at a condo that was built before 1978 and had chipping paint in plain sight. When we asked the realtor if they would be willing to clean that up or paint over it considering our circumstances, they scoffed at the notion and said “that’s not our problem.” That is the kind lackadaisical attitude that landlords and realtors in New Hampshire are allowed to have when it comes to lead and the health of our children.

We found another home that was built in 2001 – perfect! The owner of that home did not care about our situation and chose not to rent to us.

Fortunately not all landlords use the light-weighted lead laws as a scapegoat for children’s health. Another home that we visited had already been tested for lead using a home-testing kit and the owner of the property bought encapsulating paint to fix the issue, stating that she did that for all of her rental properties. And when we looked at the home that we ended up moving to, the landlord was extremely sympathetic to our situation and purchased the home-testing kits to make sure our new home was lead free for our children before we moved in.

Now that this whole whirlwind of a situation is over for us, we realize how fortunate we are. Moving is not only difficult, but expensive. One of us basically stopped working for the month that we were dealing with this, resulting in loss of income, and moving costs are expensive. Thankfully we had family and friends who helped us and we knew to contact our state Sen. Dan Feltes, and he connected us to a couple attorneys who are immersed in the lead problem here in N.H.

But not all families are as fortunate as we are. We can’t help but think about low-income families who don’t have the financial means to move. Families whose children aren’t being tested at age one and two. New American (refugee/immigrant) families who don’t know their rights. And families who aren’t able to provide their children with the care they need following a diagnosis of elevated lead levels.

Childhood lead poisoning continues to be a significant, preventable environmental health problem. Despite major strides in the elimination of lead poisoning in the population as a whole, children, who are especially vulnerable to the harmful effects of lead, continue to be exposed to this toxic metal. Senate Bill 247 will allow New Hampshire to start catching up to our fellow New England states’ lead laws. Here is how the law will help New Hampshire children and families:

Dramatically increase the number of kids who are tested for lead, by establishing universal testing for all one- and two-year olds (while providing parents the right to opt out).

Modernize NH’s lead law to be consistent with the Centers for Disease Control’s standard, by reducing the state’s regulatory “action level” to a blood lead level of 5 micrograms per deciliter. (The state’s current action level of 10 will be reduced to 7.5 in July 2019, and to 5 in July 2021).

Identifying whether lead is present in drinking water in rental housing, where children are diagnosed with elevated blood lead levels, and in child care centers and schools, and addressing the problem where lead levels exceed EPA standards.

Establishing a loan guarantee program to assist landlords and homeowners in eliminating lead hazard.

This last item is important because the Landlord Association of New Hampshire is arguing against the bill claiming that the cost of encapsulating existing apartments will be too great, resulting in increased rents, but the loan guarantee program addresses that issue, making the law beneficial to all.

Fortunately, we were able to catch our 1-year-old’s high lead level and deal with it reactively. Since our 3-year-old was not tested after his one-year checkup, we don’t know if living in that lead-contaminated apartment has affected his development or behavior. Being reactive versus proactive is not an acceptable gamble New Hampshire families should be expected to take with our children. But that can change for future children and families with SB 247.

We urge our state legislators to take a positive step toward the health of all children in New Hampshire by passing SB 247. If you agree, please reach out to your local state representative and ask them to vote yes on SB 247.

(Paden and Jessica Livingston, formerly of Concord, live in Bow.)