Lead Poisoning Hits New Immigrants in Maine the Hardest

Lead poisoning can be completely debilitating, especially for young children whose brains are still developing. For these young kids, it can mean learning difficulties, constant crying, and physical pain.

Meet Kadra Ahmed, mother of five children; her youngest child was only a few months old when he began to cry, not like a healthy child, not like one that was sick. He would never stop, he wouldn’t eat, didn’t talk, and he struggled to walk.

His condition forced Ahmed to quit her job to care for him. A routine blood test came back showing that her son had lead poisoning, with levels far higher than they would expect for a child.

The family had been living in an apartment on Bates Street in Lewiston, Maine. In these downtown buildings lead usage was common and because of the low socioeconomic status of the neighborhood very little of it has been removed.

Lead paint is the biggest culprit, chipping off walls where children can play with it or breathe in the dust. Lewiston remains the worst area in the entire state of Maine for lead poisoning; it’s also one of the most prominent homes of new immigrants.

Immigrants are Often Unaware of the Risks

These families come from abroad, they know little about the lead usage in the city, and many don’t know their legal rights. Fear in the community prevents many of these families from speaking up, causing immigrants to face a higher percentage of lead poisoning than average.

A local group called The New Mainers Public Health Initiative is aimed at immigrants and refugees who are facing health issues in the area. While they have no solid data, anecdotal reports suggest that lead poisoning is a significant problem for immigrants in the area.

“You see in every family there is one child who is acting weirdly in that family and if they test for the lead it’s always high,” said Sahal Jimale, a representative of the group.

Lead has been used for decades in the paint because it increases its durability, color and drying speed. Lead paint has been used extensively indoors and outdoors, and without the funding to remove it much remains in the area.

Studies have shown that even very low levels of lead in the body can cause serious health issues. A research report out of New Zealand found that even five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood could cause a loss of memory, lower than average adult IQ and learning difficulties.

However, advocates in the industry continue to state that there is no ‘safe’ level of lead. Nobody should ingest or inhale it in any form, even in the smallest quantities.

In the four years leading up to 2015, an estimated 241 children from Lewiston under three years old had lead poisoning – almost 8% of those children who had blood tests taken. This area accounts for nearly 18% of the entire states lead poisoning cases for this age group, clear evidence the locals are facing the problem in much higher quantities than in other areas.

The Government Has Failed for Years to Fix the Problem

“I think originally when they started this thing (in the late 1990s), we were going to eliminate lead by 2010,” said Sandy Albert, the director of housing improvement services for a group in Lewiston. “I remember that when I started at the agency, that was the goal. I don’t think they realized how big of an issue it was.”

Over many decades millions of dollars have been spent trying to deal with the problem, but even today locals are facing high levels of lead exposure. Of those, the people with the least money tend to be affected the worst – many are immigrants, newly re-located and often failing to find jobs.

“They don’t understand lead as much as we may, and I don’t think we even understand it as much as some parents should,” Albert said. These immigrants “are facing a poison they don’t even know.”

Parents might not speak the language or understand the opportunities that they have for help. But the real problem is not with access to help; it’s with the pervasive problem that still exists decades after federal law aimed to remove it.


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