Lead-based paint and lead-contaminated dust have created health hazards for young children and adults for over a century, but only since the 1970s has lead exposure become a major public health issue. Lead-based paint is now illegal to use in residential homes, yet 29 million homes in the U.S. still have lead-based paint hazards, and over two million of these homes have young children residing in them. NYC has regulations against lead paint and laws demanding that landlords identify and resolve any lead-based paint hazards, but residents in older buildings should take extra precautions to ensure young children are not endangered.
Before lead was known to be dangerous, it was widely used as a practical and inexpensive metal. Not only used in paint, lead has had a myriad of usages over the past 5000 years, including pipes, makeup, and cookware. Chemistry professor Joseph Heppert told NPR that lead was the “plastic of the ancient world.”
As far back as the 4th century B.C.E., artists would grind lead into dust to make lead white paint, known for its opacity and density. Artists like Vermeer and Vincent Van Gogh have famously used the pigment. Though artists frequently suffered from side effects from the paint (then titled “painter’s colic,” now known as lead poisoning), artists continued to use lead white paint until it was outlawed in the 1970s.
In 1904 Dr. Lockhart Gibson, a physician in Australia, concluded that lead paint in homes was responsible for lead poisoning in children. He also gathered that freshly painted or worn, chipping surfaces were of primary concern. For the first half of the 20th century, the dangers of lead paint were well known amongst physicians, but lead poisoning was difficult to diagnose due to the lack of available diagnostic tools such as blood testing.
Lead paint was finally outlawed in residential buildings in 1978, though lead is still used in boats, cars, and, most commonly, batteries. Though lead-based paint is no longer used in residential buildings, tenants living in homes built before the 1970s can still face danger from lead-based paint used in the past.
The use and danger of lead paint in homes
Though lead-based paint is no longer used in residences, homes built before 1978 can still have the risk of lead exposure. Chipped paint, dust from peeling paint, or crumbling wood or plaster on doors and windows all create danger for young children. The CDC states that “any surface covered with lead-based paint where the paint may wear by rubbing or friction is likely to cause lead dust including windows, doors, floors, porches, stairways, and cabinets.”
Lead paint is particularly dangerous to young children, as they frequently swallow the lead paint chips or dust found on windowsills or doors. Though some symptoms of lead exposure are similar to common diseases (abdominal pain, fatigue, and vomiting), lead poisoning can cause behavior and learning problems in young children as well. Lead gets directly absorbed into the body and can penetrate the nervous system, resulting in a disruption of the normal function of calcium and can cause high blood pressure and mental disability. At high levels, lead poisoning can be fatal. Though the risk is highest for young children, lead can also be dangerous to adults.
How to stay protected
As of 2004, New York state passed a law that required all landlords to identify and remediate lead-based hazards in apartments where there are young children. According to the NYC housing and preservation department, “lead-based paint hazards are presumed to exist in dwelling units and common areas if the building was built before January 1, 1960; the building has tenant-occupied rental apartments; and a child under the age of six resides in the dwelling unit.” Property owners must test for lead-based paint regularly and “follow instructions under the law for doing any type of work that may disturb a lead-based paint covered surface.” Landlords are also required to give an annual notice in which tenants are able to notify the landlord if a child under the age of six resides in the apartment.
In addition to landlords being responsible for lead-based paint testing and risk management, tenants can also take further action to reduce the danger of lead poisoning. If you are concerned about lead-based paint in your home, you can get a lead paint inspection or a risk assessment performed by an EPA-certified individual. An inspection will tell you the lead content of all of the structural parts of the home, and a risk assessment will determine how dangerous any chipping or peeled paint may be. Washing floors, windowsills, toys, and pacifiers frequently can mitigate risk, and if you find peeling paint in the unit, it should be reported promptly to the landlord.
If a landlord fails to resolve a chipping paint issue or if work is done unsafely, tenants should call 311 or file a claim online to report an issue. A city inspector will come to the home, and if peeling lead-based paint is found, the city can order the owner to fix it, issue fines, or fix the problem. If it is determined that there is a risk of lead exposure in a home, tenants can have their children tested through the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Picking up the pieces
Lead-based paint, once used for stark white pigments in oil paintings, now carries a dark history. Millions of children have been affected by lead poisoning, and only within the past few decades have lawmakers taken action to protect children and adults from the harm of lead exposure. For tenants in rental apartments, it is imperative to be informed about your rights and the landlord’s responsibility regarding lead-based paint, and where possible, it is best to take extra precautions by washing windowsills and floors frequently. New York City is home to many buildings constructed in the early 20th century that have old-school charm and character, but with these older buildings come health hazards for tenants. Though lead-based paint is now on its way to becoming obsolete, residents still face the rippling waves and consequences of lead exposure from decades past. Thankfully, there are many other rental apartments that are safe from the hazards of lead paint. You can start your search for those homes here.