When the Flint, Michigan, water crisis made national headlines, it served as a wake-up call for many New England communities. Across the region, cities and towns began looking at the state of their own water systems to ensure they were safe and lead-free.
In Claremont, New Hampshire, a city of just over 13,000 near the Vermont border, Mayor Charlene Lovett took things a step further. "Lead levels in our water distribution system meet EPA standards, but we wanted to be more proactive," she recalls. "We instituted operation 'Get the Lead Out,' an initiative to remove all lead components from the water distribution system."
That meant going home by home and checking water service lines for lead. When it was found, those lines were replaced or homeowners were given free filters to protect them and their children.
But it was during a conversation with the state Department of Environmental Services that Lovett came to understand the true scope of the lead problem in New Hampshire. "They mentioned that water lines are not the primary cause of lead poisoning in the state," she says. When she asked what is, they replied: lead-based paint.
In a city where 84 percent of the homes were built before the 1978 ban on lead paint, Lovett knew she had a problem on her hands. The more research she did, the more worried she became. An average of 40 Claremont children were poisoned every year --but those were only the cases actually diagnosed. Barely half of all 1-year-olds in Claremont were screened for lead poisoning annually. For 2-year-olds, the number dropped to 27 percent.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, any exposure to lead is dangerous, especially for children under 6 years old. Even low levels of lead exposure in toddlers can cause irreversible health problems, including IQ deficits and cognitive and behavioral issues.
"It's one thing to have the numbers," says Lovett. "But we're talking about 40 children in Claremont poisoned by lead-children who have been robbed of their full potential." Lovett became determined to change the math in her city.
She began by rallying key stakeholders, including the city administration, Valley Regional Hospital, pediatricians, the local school board, and state agencies. "It was important to bring the community together so that we could agree on the severity of the problem and develop a plan to address it."
Together, Lovett and her partners set three ambitious goals: to educate residents about lead...