When I was young, I never understood why in Tommy Boy Chris Farley gets asked “Did you eat a lot of paint chips as a kid?” Now, of course, I know it’s because in old houses, lead paint can poison inhabitants decades later, and cause brain damage in children. The US government banned residential use of lead paint in 1978 (years after European countries made the same move), but the stuff lingers on in buildings built before that time, flaking off unpainted walls or lurking under repainted ones. Renters may not know the history of the buildings they move into; below is a rundown of the basics you should consider, especially when living in an older building.
Why Lead Paint is Dangerous
Lead poisoning doesn’t only come from literally eating lead paint: ingestion can be as simple as inhaling lead dust of degraded paint, or touching dust and inadvertently transferring it to your mouth. The problem with lead is that there is NO safe level to have in your body—and once it’s in, it stays, and accumulates over time with repeated interactions. It’s especially dangerous for babies and young children, who are still developing and can develop learning disabilities, behavioral issues, and other health problems. Parents may not even be aware of a problem, as kids can seem healthy even with high levels of lead.
What You—and Your Landlord—Can (and Should) Do
Be extremely cautious when remodeling houses built before 1978; remodeling is prime time for lead exposure. This means removing children from the building, and following best safety practices. In fact, the EPA recently required that such work performed on old buildings must be done by a certified contractor. The take-home message is not to just grab a paint scraper and an old blanket—make sure you have the correct equipment and knowledge when doing any paint-related work on an old building.
Even when you are not remodeling, follow safety guidelines (as put down by the EPA)—including getting children tested for lead and keeping your house clean and free of lead dust.
Be wary of old furniture and toys that might have been manufactured with lead paint.
The standards for inspections, maintenance, and abatement mostly depend on the state’s specific regulations. That can make knowing your rights pretty difficult, especially if you’re bouncing around the country. (The exceptions for this are if you rent in HUD or Section 8 housing, in which case your landlord is subject to federal regulations.) Again, a good baseline is to educate yourself and follow EPA guidelines to minimize your risk.
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