By Rosemary Ford and Rachel Ford
At one point, lead exposure was a huge problem in the United States.
In the late ‘70s, 88 percent of children ages 1 to 5 had levels of lead in their blood that would today be considered concerning. Phasing out leaded gasoline resulted in huge declines — but hasn’t eliminated the problem.
Today, the primary cause of lead poisoning is lead paint, which lingers in many homes built before 1978. That’s a particular concern in New Hampshire, where more than half of homes were constructed before that date.
As part of an ongoing series about environmental justice, the Granite State News Collaborative reporters and NH Bar News have teamed up to look at environmental challenges facing New Hampshire families. In this series of stories, the team explores why lead paint is still a problem in New Hampshire and what’s being done to clear homes of this hazard, particularly for children living in poverty.
Joining The State We’re In host Melanie Plenda this week are Scott Merrill (editor at NH Bar News), Kathie Ragsdale (reporter for the Granite State News Collaborative), John Bassett (data and research editor for the Granite State News Collaborative), and Paul Cuno-Booth (reporter for the Granite State News Collaborative).
This content has been edited for length and clarity. Watch the full interview on NH PBS's The State We’re In.
Melanie Plenda: Paul, can you give us a brief history of lead contamination in New Hampshire? What does that affect here?
Paul Cuno-Booth: The first thing to know is that lead exposure has really declined over the past few decades with the phasing out of leaded gasoline. It used to be a far more common problem for children to be lead poisoned, but it's still an issue. The primary route for exposure is lead paint in older houses. Particularly in New Hampshire, more than half of our housing stock was built before lead paint was banned in the seventies, so there's hundreds of thousands of houses that may have lead contamination, and children under six are living in many of them. In 2019, almost 600 New Hampshire children tested with elevated blood lead levels, and public health experts say it certainly warrants attention.
Melanie Plenda: Kathie, you spoke with the Lenos, a family that's learned all too well the dangers of lead poisoning. Can you explain what happened with that family?
Kathie Ragsdale: They found themselves in need of new housing when the building they were living in was sold and they were thrilled to find a place in Claremont, an older building that was spacious and within months they moved in with three of their four kids - the older one was out of the house by then. Within months, one of the infant twins - Matthew - was having night terrors and constipation. He had previously been stringing together his first words, and he suddenly stopped speaking so they took him to the doctor. Within the few months they lived in that home, the two twins had blood lead levels of something like seventeen and eighteen micrograms per deciliter, which is far above what was considered safe. In that time, Matthew has been found to have a very low IQ, he is being homeschooled because he was getting bullied, he has a variety of developmental disabilities, and according to doctors he will probably never drive or hold a job or do some things that they'd hoped for when he was born.
Melanie Plenda: How does lead paint become an issue with children, and how is it ingested typically?
Kathie Ragsdale: I thought typically it was from eating lead paint chips, but that is not the case. We did have a very high profile case a few years back of a two year old Sudanese girl who had a condition called PICA where you eat non-food items, and she was eating lead paint chips on the porch of her Manchester apartment, and she died from lead paint poisoning. More typically it's from little kids when they reach toddler age, they start to toddle and they grab hold of window sills and things like that, where they touch lead paint dust and then put their hands in their mouth.
Melanie Plenda: John, you collected a lot of data looking at lead paint in New Hampshire, so who is affected most by this and how does New Hampshire compare to other states?
John Bassett: The number one the number one way that a kid would ingest lead or would get lead in their system is through paint in their house, so the question then is where are houses that were built before 1980? 1978 was the year lead was no longer being used in paint, so where are the pre-1980 houses in New Hampshire? Well, they're spread all over the place, but there are some places that they can be found in, especially high concentrations. We found through using some census data that six of the ten neighborhoods or census tracks that have the highest percentage of pre-1980s homes are all in Manchester, so Manchester does have a higher concentration of this but regionwide New Hampshire is doing quite well. Including New York, out of all of the states in the Northeast, New Hampshire has by far the lowest percentage of houses that were built before 1980. New York at the top of the list has about 78% of their homes were all built before 1980. To contrast, just over half in New Hampshire were built before 1980.
Melanie Plenda: Kathie, what can parents do if they are worried about lead paint in their home?
Kathie Ragsdale: Dr. Allen Wolf, a pediatrician at Harvard medical school, said if your child has indeed been exposed, one thing you can do is make sure your diet is high in iron, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D as well as have your kid wash their hands frequently. If they do start to show any sign of developmental disability, get some educational intervention early on, because that will really help. They can also do common sense things like dusting your window sills or damp mopping them. Heidi Leno, the mother of Matthew, also suggests that when you move into a place to make sure you get documentation from the landlord about how old the house is, whether it had lead paint, and be alert to any changes in your kids that you might see because that could be a sign of a developmental disability that may be related to lead paint poisoning.
Melanie Plenda: What help is available for homeowners or landlords to get rid of lead paint?
Paul Cuno-Booth: There are several grant programs in the State; Sullivan county, Manchester, and Nashua all have their own. For the rest of the state, the New Hampshire Housing Finance Authority has one. These are programs that offer grants to homeowners or landlords to inspect and then remove lead hazards from units. The people we spoke to for the story said there's more money than ever coming in from the federal government to do lead removal. There's millions of dollars between these four programs, but it is still a drop in the bucket compared to all the pre 1980 homes that we have. In addition to these grants, there's also a state loan program that offers deferred loans to further help with those costs. It's essentially a loan that attaches to the home and doesn't have to be paid back until the home is sold.
Melanie Plenda: Scott, what's worked so far and what do you think are the roadblocks to reducing lead poisoning?
Scott Merrill: One of the roadblocks I think was the lack of contractors to remove lead hazards. I wanted to also point out Charlene Lovett's work in Claremont. We didn't cover this in the article, but that's been a real success story in terms of the increasing screenings of children. They've brought in mobile units to do screenings, and they've applied for grants. This is in Sullivan county, so I thought that was noteworthy. We just didn't have space in the article to really focus on that.
Charlene Lovett is the mayor of Claremont and I think she got busy eliminating as much lead in the city as she could back in 2016 or 2017. That was around the time when there was a statewide initiative to decrease blood lead levels in children and have increased screenings for children. Having talked to her, it seemed like she was very passionate about it, and she got community buy-in partly through her diligence working on the issue, but also in a practical sense, she started applying for lots of grants and she got as much money for her city as she could.
Melanie Plenda: So, Scott, what's next in the environmental justice series?
Scott Merrill: I've been interviewing people this week about food security issues. Access to healthy food is a problem. I just got done reading a paper about the Carsi School of Public Policy and they've mapped out the entire state, showing where the lowest income folks live. There's pockets in Nashville and Manchester, but the majority of people who are living below the federal poverty line, which is about $50,000 a year for a family of four, are in Coos county and Northern Grafton county. Those are also the places where the fewest number of grocery stores exist or have lack of access to farmed foods. We’re looking forward to diving into that issue. The Conservation Law Foundation is working on a project right now as well, which is helping small farmers with legal questions that they might have in terms of zoning issues and things like that, so I'm gonna be speaking with those folks and hopefully we can get this off the ground soon.
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative as part of our race and equity project. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.
Taking a look at zoning practices in Manchester, and across the state.
The State We're In is produced in partnership with the Granite State News Collaborative which is funded in part by the Solutions Journalism Network and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Production assistance is provided by the students and staff of the Marlin Fitzwater Center for Communication at Franklin Pierce Unversity in Rindge, NH.
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