A routine blood test last fall was the first hint of the ordeal to come.
Gina George’s 2-year-old daughter, Maria, had elevated lead levels, her pediatrician told her — below the level of 7.5 micrograms per deciliter that triggers an inspection and case management by the state Department of Health and Human Services, but high enough to bear watching.
Then George took her older child, 3-year-old Matthew, to have his blood checked. His blood lead level was 65 micrograms per deciliter.
Matthew’s parents rushed him to Boston Children’s Hospital, where the little boy was hospitalized for a week for a blood treatment known as chelation. His blood still has dangerously high levels of lead, and he’ll have to return to Boston every month for the foreseeable future for ongoing treatment, his mom said.
The culprit turned out to be lead paint in the Rochester apartment where George, her partner Dominick Marino, and their two kids have lived since 2018. Experts from the state health department worked with the landlord to cover all exposed surfaces until a lead remediation contractor can do a more permanent job. “My whole house is full of duct tape,” George said.
Lead poisoning can have long-term effects on children, leading to damage to the brain, kidneys and nerves; poor school performance; hearing and speech problems; slowed growth and development; and hyperactivity and aggression.
A 2018 law made New Hampshire a “universal testing” state, requiring blood lead level (BLL) testing for all 1- and 2-year-old children, unless the parents decline the testing, according to DHHS. The state has to notify parents of any child with a blood lead level of 3 micrograms per deciliter or higher.
That law also reduced from 10 to 7.5 micrograms per deciliter the “action level” that triggers case management by DHHS and a visit to the child’s home by a public health nurse and a lead inspector. And as of July 1, 2021, that level will drop to 5 micrograms per deciliter, the level recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
George said one of the hardest things was knowing she had to bring Matthew back to a home where he had been exposed to lead, once he was released from Boston Children’s Hospital. Doctors reassured her that the danger was mitigated. Any exposed paint was covered, and a public health nurse had cleaned and inspected the entire apartment.
“But still, my heart sank when I had to go back,” George said. “I was crying the whole way home.”
Making landlords help
New Hampshire Legal Assistance (NHLA) is behind a bill in Concord that would require landlords to relocate tenants quickly in such cases. The bill gets its first hearing on Wednesday before the House Judiciary Committee.
Kerstin Cornell, a staff attorney at NHLA, has been helping George and her family. Cornell said current New Hampshire law gives landlords 90 days to reduce a lead hazard, but they can also ask for a 90-day extension. “And during this time, the family is still living in the unit,” she said.
“In an ideal world, a landlord has a vacant unit they can help the family move into while they get the work done,” Cornell said. But New Hampshire’s current lack of housing often means there’s no place to move a family, she said. “The families are stuck living in these hazardous environments for months,” she said.
“So what this legislation is trying to do is to help families sooner,” said Cornell.
State Rep. Patrick Long, D-Manchester, is the sponsor of HB 1539, which would give landlords 30 days after receiving an order from the state for lead hazard reduction to offer to relocate a tenant until the health department approves re-occupancy.
Landlords would also have to pay for reasonable moving and storage costs, and the tenant would have the right of first refusal to move back in when the home is deemed safe, or the option to get out of the lease. If a landlord doesn’t fix the problem quickly enough, the tenant would have a right to use rent money to mitigate the hazard themselves.
Lead poisoning, Long said, “has a life-lasting effect and the sooner we can get them out, the better.”
His bill defines the responsibilities for both landlords and tenants, Long said. “And it does make it more reasonable for the parent to take their child out of there,” he said.
Critics say rents will rise
Landlords say they will oppose the bill.
Debbie Valente, president of New Hampshire Property Owners Association (NHPOA), is a landlord in Manchester. She said it’s nearly impossible to move someone in the current market. “You’ve already got a housing shortage at the moment,” she said. “You’re now going to try to find a lead-safe apartment that isn’t already occupied? Good luck with that. It’s not going to happen.”
Valente predicts that more landlords will stop renting to families with children to avoid future problems with lead exposure. “I know they’re not allowed to, but they do now,” she said.
And she said the bill would have a “ripple effect” on the housing market. “They’re going to just end up putting up rents.”
Rick Blais has been a property owner in Manchester for more than 30 years. A former president of the NHPOA, he presents educational workshops for landlords, including information about lead prevention and abatement. He said he advises landlords to set aside emergency funding to cover costs in case they ever have a problem with lead.
Blais said he’ll speak against House Bill 1539. He said landlords are still coming to grips with the 2018 law changes. And he said the tight housing market means there’s nowhere for tenants to move if a problem arises.
“If I have to put a tenant up in a hotel at $200 a night for three weeks to get the job done, I can’t absorb that myself. I’m going to have to increase rents across the board,” Blais said.
“Every time you add this new legislation in, somebody’s paying for it,” he said. “It’s usually the end-user.”
Cornell said she understands that the tight housing market could make it difficult to find another home quickly. “The bill envisions that all parties will be working to find an alternate place for the families to go, and provides a couple of avenues to make that more possible,” she said.
Broad impact of lead
For George and Marino, the ordeal that started last fall with a simple blood test has been a downward spiral.
Marino lost his job as a cook because he was spending so much time in Boston at his son’s bedside, George said. They rely on food stamps and the children are covered by Medicaid in New Hampshire, but she’s been getting bills from the hospital in Boston.
Marino found a new job, but they got behind in their rent and now they’re facing eviction for nonpayment, George said.
But she takes comfort in the fact that Matthew is showing no signs of impairment from lead poisoning. “And I think that’s why I’m so OK with everything,” she said. “I thank God every day.”
The family has been looking for a new apartment in Massachusetts, to be closer to Matthew’s Boston doctors. Getting help with relocation to a different apartment, as proposed by HB 1539, George said, “would be an amazing miracle.”
George said she didn’t know anything about the dangers of lead until her son was poisoned. She remembers telling the doctors in Boston she couldn’t imagine how Matthew had been exposed to lead, since she doesn’t have any #2 pencils in her home. “The doctor started laughing at me,” she said.
She knows a lot more now. Her advice to other parents?
“Be careful,” she said. “Ask, ‘When was this place built? Does it have lead? Is it safe for my children?’ If not, I walk out now.’”