For those of us with children, I think we have all had the experience, at least once, of knowing that we are in a situation that is harmful to our children, in this very moment, and we are currently powerless to do anything about it. A friend-turned-client called me recently, in the throes of desperation: her baby had high lead levels in his blood, and it seemed like there was so very little that she could do to keep him safe.
In the end, they were able to take steps to get their family and kiddos into a safe home, and today I'm going through those steps with you.
Before you move in. Know that if you're moving into an old house (one built before 1978), your risk for lead paint exposure is higher. Landlords have to disclose if the house was built before 1978, they have to give you a pamphlet ("Protect Your Family From Lead In Your Home"), and they have to write out a disclosure list of any known lead paint hazards. If you have kids, or plan to be pregnant with children while living in the house, you should do your own inspection - is there chipping/peeling/deteriorating paint? If you decide to move in, make sure to be proactive about getting kids' blood lead levels tested, or test the paint on your own, as well.
Discover the problem. Most families who have regular health care for their children get blood lead levels checked at a pretty young age. Most families discover the problem this way, by learning that their child's blood lead levels are high through a blood test at the doctor's office. If levels are super high, some doctors will refer directly to the local health department, which may be the best choice as an advocacy group. However, if blood lead levels are below state-mandated intervention levels, it may be more expedient to work with landlords directly to have lead hazards removed, at least at first.
Write a letter to your landlord. A letter might not be effective in forcing the landlord to take action, but it helps protect tenants in two very useful ways: A. It establishes the starting point where you can prove that the landlord knew about the lead paint (which helps you to prove negligence, later on, if you need to do so), and B. It is a paper trail that will force the landlord to disclose all known lead paint violations to future tenants (according to EPA regulations). Even if you have a verbal conversation about it, make sure to write it down! (Here's how.) Here are some things you might want to include in the letter:
- The reason you discovered the problem (like high blood lead levels revealed in a blood test).
- Where, in the rental unit, you see chipping/peeling/deteriorating paint.
- Who is in danger. If you have kids, list their ages.
- A reasonable deadline for the landlord to resolve the problem (make sure it's an exact date).
- That you expect all lead paint remediation done by a certified lead paint remediator (that's actually a federal law, but it's a good thing to mention).
- Make sure to keep a copy of the letter for your records!
Test your home to figure out the problem spots. Paint chips and water samples can be given to your local health department, and they can test for lead levels. Once you figure out where in your home the lead is coming from, it's much easier to make the home safer. Odds are good that you and your landlord will have different ideas about the problem areas (Landlord: The toys in your house! The water main over which I have no control! Tenant: The paint! The window sills! The areas over which you do have control!). Local health department contact info is here. The Dane Co. Health Dept.'s testing information is here.
Keep a log of everything that you are doing to lessen the impact of lead in your household. If questioned later on, this will allow to you show that you took as much action as possible to keep your family safe, and hopefully, will keep the focus on what the landlord needs to do in order to resolve the situation. The Dane County Health Department has the following general recommendations to minimize lead intake from painted surfaces:
- Keep painted surfaces in good condition. Keep children away from peeling paint.
- Wet mop floors and wet wipe painted surfaces frequently, especially interior and exterior window sills.
- Wash children's hands frequently, especially before they eat.
- Provide a balanced diet with adequate iron and calcium, and avoid fatty foods
Keep sending letters! Especially if you want to hold the landlord accountable for negligence later on, a good paper trail is extremely important. If you have conversations, write those down, send it and make sure to keep a copy. If the landlord misses a deadline that you set, write it down, send it, keep a copy. If the landlord makes a promise about resolving the situation, write it down, send it, keep a copy.
If the landlord doesn't take appropriate action, you can do any of the following (or all of the following):
- Call the your local health department, and do all you can to get them to take action against the landlord. Different health departments will take different levels of enforcement, depending on the blood lead levels of the child, and their own internal regulations.
- If your landlord has promised to fix the lead problem, but hasn't, then you can make a complaint with the Dept. of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Their complaint form is here.
- Move out (see next step).
Move out. The best way to protect the kiddos is to simply not live with lead paint anymore. We at the TRC tend to think that in hazardous situations, it's better to get to a safe place, and deal with the money afterwards, rather than wait for a perfect solution to come around (spoiler alert: perfect solutions are rare). Moving before dealing with the money isn't possible for all tenants, but if it is a possibility for you, here are some suggestions:
- Ask your landlord to end the lease through a termination of tenancy by mutual agreement form. Often, when presented with this form in this situation, the landlord will ask the tenant to agree to give up rights to sue in the future in order to sign. Before your landlord asks for that, ask yourself if you want to keep your rights to sue in the future: what are the likely long-term impacts on your family of the lead paint? Was it likely that the landlord knew about this before you brought it to his/her attention? Did the landlord take steps right away to resolve the situation or did the landlord only take minimal/slow steps? Do you think you have a way to show that the landlord was negligent?
- Wait for your landlord to sue you for unpaid rent, and then argue "constructive eviction." More info here, but constructive eviction is a defense tenants can use in court to say that you shouldn't have to pay rent because you were unable to live in the home due to a significant health or safety hazard.
- Go through steps to break your lease, and keep track of the landlord's efforts to "mitigate." A whole blog post on breaking a lease is here. As a last resort, you want to know if your landlord tried to make the apartment available to other tenants, because if they didn't try to re-rent it, then you're off the hook for paying the rent.
Why is lead such a big deal? And why is it so complicated?
- Lead affects people disproportionately. It has a greater impact on children, especially undernourished children. It has a greater impact on pregnant women, leading to miscarriage and pregnancy complications.
- Lead has life-long impacts. According to this website, "Even low levels of lead in the blood of children can result in: Behavior problems and hyperactivity, Lower IQ and learning problems, Slowed growth, Hearing problems." The CDC says that "effects of lead exposure cannot be corrected."
- Wisconsin's laws don't do enough to protect children, according to the research. The World Health Organization says that no level of lead is safe (none!), and yet Wisconsin's laws only require investigation when there is 10-20 micrograms of lead per 100 milliliters of blood (links below). While there's much research that needs to be done, this article shows that reading and math deficits for children with blood lead levels starting at 3 micrograms of lead per 100 milliliters of blood.
- Blood tests only represent a small window of time. Blood tests only show blood lead levels for about 90 days, and isn't usually tested continually. If a child were to ingest a large amount of lead (a paint chip, say) outside the testing window, doctors and parents might not know how high the blood lead level actually was, and the child could suffer significant damage, even though the cause for that damage might not have been clear at the time.
Statutes and Regulations:
- Wis. Stat. 254.166 is the statute that sets out what the state requires local health departments to do. Basically, it says a property investigation must be done if there is a child age 6 or under in the household who has an elevated blood lead level.
- Wis. Stat. 254.11(5m) defines "elevated blood lead levels" as 1 blood test in which the child age 6 or under has 20 or more micrograms per 100 milliliters of blood, OR 2 blood tests within 90 days in which the child age 6 or under has 15 or more micrograms per 100 milliliters of blood.
- However, in that same definitions list, Wis. Stat. 254.11(9) defines "Lead poisoning or lead exposure" as a level of lead in the blood of 10 or more micrograms per 100 milliliters of blood.
- Many health departments have their own internal regulations where they require action at a point that is lower than these state defined levels. Dane Co. begins to take investigative action when a child has blood lead levels of 5 micrograms per 100 milliliters of blood.
- The Environmental Protection Agency, a federal agency, says that, for properties built before 1978, landlords must give out a "Protect Your Family From Lead In Your Home" brochure, and disclose all known lead paint in the home. If they do not, then there is a violation of federal law. More info here.
- There are more stringent requirements for homes that receive HUD funding - public housing, and those that receive Section 8 vouchers. More at HUD's website.
- Local Health Departments, who are the ones who do enforcement of lead paint removal across Wisconsin: https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/lh-depts/counties/index.htm
- Lead Paint Remediation Certified companies: https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/lead/contractor/leadcompany.pdf
- The State Dept of Health Services that works with lead concerns across Wisconsin: https://www.dhs.wisconsin.gov/lead/index.htm. They are mostly an informational resource about Wisconsin services, and do not have investigative or enforcement capacity.
- The Dane Co. Health Dept, where they test lead paint: http://www.publichealthmdc.com/environmental/laboratory/paint.cfm
- The Environmental Protection Agency: http://www2.epa.gov/lead
- The Center for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/nceh/lead/
- The World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs379/en/
* Hi! Did you know that we are not doctors here at the TRC? If you have concerns about lead paint, talk to your doctor. We are also not attorneys. And this isn't legal advice, either. If what we've written here doesn't sound right to you, talk about it with someone you trust. For help finding an attorney, check out our attorney referral list.