Data-driven Community Lead Poisoning Prevention

March 21, 2019

a boy chews on a window sillThe number of children under the age of six years newly identified with lead poisoning in Maine has been decreasing steadily over many years.

But lead poisoning continues to threaten children’s health and development.

A University of Maine economist (PDF)estimated that the total expected earnings for Maine children born in the year 2003 would be $240 million less throughout their lifetimes as a result of the effects of lead on their intellectual function.

With the intent to eliminate childhood lead poisoning using focused, targeted resources for primary prevention, the Maine Legislature created the Lead Poisoning Prevention Fund.  A $0.25 fee collected on every gallon of paint sold in the state provides the fund with dedicated revenue for statewide and community-level lead poisoning prevention activities.

Data-driven Stewardship

To ensure that prevention efforts were implemented effectively and to maximize the fund's resources, the fund's managing agent, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Maine CDC) Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, worked with the Maine CDC Environmental Public Health Tracking Program.

The collaboration produced town-level maps to identify high-risk areas for childhood lead poisoning. The maps helped staff see that 40% of all childhood lead poisonings occurred in just five areas: Bangor, Lewiston/Auburn, Portland, Saco/Biddeford and Sanford. Further probing showed that within these five areas, more than 80% of lead poisoned children lived in rental housing.

Additional Census block level mapping of lead poisoning cases, blood lead screening data, and percentage of housing units built before 1950 revealed neighborhoods in these five high-risk areas where children were most at risk.

Improved Public Health

Using this information, the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program prioritizes resources, distributing about half of the Lead Poisoning Prevention Fund to community-based partner organizations in each of the five high-risk areas. Partners in turn provide landlords and tenants with education and services such as free testing for household lead dust--the most common cause of childhood lead poisoning.

Maine Tracking Network maps and data also help community partners evaluate their efforts. Maps of the locations of dust testing in rental units confirm that communities are successfully targeting efforts to high-risk neighborhoods. Through 2013, partners performed lead dust tests and follow-up education in nearly 500 rental units in high-risk neighborhoods, finding elevated levels of lead dust in one out of every three units tested. This is the first time that widespread, preventive lead dust testing has occurred in Maine rental units; prior to the Lead Poisoning Prevention Fund, units were tested for lead dust only after a child was identified with lead poisoning. 

As for health outcomes, data from 2003 to 2013 indicate that lead poisoning rates in three out of five high-risk areas have dropped significantly and are now close to the statewide rate.

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