Are You Being Exposed to Lead Poisons in Your Own Home?
by Michelle Haberstroh
As a graduate student studying public health, I have always been interested in the role the environment plays in impacting health, yet I still wound up living in a home with lead-based paint. When I moved into a nice duplex here in Illinois two years ago, my landlords had the lease in hand, and rather than read the entire document in front of them, I quickly scanned and signed it. There was no mention at all of lead exposure. Had I not recently changed Wi-Fi providers and coincidentally reviewed the lease, I might never have found out there was lead-based paint in my home. Naturally, my first concern was for my family’s health as well as my own. But slowly I began to wonder how many other people don’t thoroughly read their leases either? It’s possible that some renters never become fully aware they’re being exposed, which means they remain vulnerable for years–or possibly– much if not all of their lives. Does the law go far enough to protect the public from lead-based hazards in our homes?
History of Lead in Older Homes
The only way to protect the public from lead exposure is to prevent it from happening in the first place. People can be exposed from sources like paint, plumbing pipes, household dust, job sites, and soil. In the past, lead was routinely used in construction materials, which poses a serious risk for exposure in houses that have not been updated with safer products. Even with regulations banning lead-based paint in 1978, homes built before this may still contain lead paint or other materials. Windows and walls coated with years of built-up paint tend to peel, chip, and flake, which causes lead dust to form, winding up on the floor and other surfaces where children play. Simply replacing contaminated windows eliminates a major source of lead exposure, but older houses often have outdated plumbing, as well. One of the most well-known examples of lead exposure in recent history occurred in Flint, Michigan, when people throughout the community were poisoned by tap water in their own homes. Primary prevention occurs when we work to stop a problem before it happens. It’s important for the public to be aware of potential exposures and choose to rent healthy homes, but if our landlords don’t properly disclose this kind of information, how are we to know about these hazards?
Adult and Child Health Risks
There is no safe level of lead in blood, and the effects are irreversible. Irreversible. After having lived in a home for two years with lead-based paint and other possible exposures, I can’t help but wonder whether the fatigue and irritability I’ve experienced recently are cause for concern. Is it possible I might suffer from some of the other ill health effects on adults? Will I experience fertility problems? High blood pressure? Digestive problems? Nerve disorders? Loss of memory and concentration? Muscle and joint pain? I’ve already noticed worrying signs: elevated blood pressure, muscle and joint pain. I’ve started physical therapy, but because I was unaware of any type of exposure until recently, I didn’t think to have my BLL checked. If I continue living here and perhaps later become pregnant, what harm might come to my baby? We know that pregnant mothers who are exposed to lead face a number of possible negative health outcomes, including high blood pressure and other serious issues. But children have an even higher health risk than adults due to their developing nervous systems. Kids exposed to lead face physical development delays, hearing and speech problems, and cognitive issues such as lowered IQ, learning disabilities, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, and behavioral problems, all likely to negatively affect academic achievement. These issues are so concerning that the CDC developed a report for Educational Interventions for Children Affected by Lead. Affordable rent is appealing, but the associated health effects of lead exposure aren’t worth the cost to our health and well-being. Fortunately, I’m in the position to find better housing. What becomes of those who can’t afford to move?
Several laws address lead exposure prevention, both at the federal and state level. For example, national policies require landlords to disclose the presence of lead-based materials by providing documents about the hazard to people who rent their properties. The Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992, also known as Title X, requires owners to provide renters with the pamphlet Protect Your Family From Lead In Your Home, which my landlord did not give me. The policy also gives renters 10 days to complete an inspection. The Office of Lead Hazard Control and Healthy Homes recommends using the Healthy Homes Rating System to assess health risks based on housing conditions. These laws are supposed to protect us from exposure, but unfortunately, they seem to primarily focus on disclosure instead of condemning homes until identified issues are resolved.
In my state, the Illinois Lead Program offers testing, education, and licensure, but not abatement services. Still, if an inspection identifies hazards, the Lead Poisoning Prevention Act mandates the Illinois Public Health Department to serve a mitigation notice and requires homeowners to give tenants a copy. For the disclosure regarding lead-based paint hazards to be in my lease in the first place, an inspection must have taken place at one point in time, and a subsequent mitigation notice should have been issued. Yet neither was disclosed to me, which begs the question: are current enforcement policies strong enough?
Stricter Enforcement to Increase Funding
As David Jacobs points out in Find It, Fix It, Fund It, we need to do more to identify lead-based hazards and fund abatement programs in order to fix the problem in our homes. Obviously, without mitigation, even if one family moves out, the next family that moves in will be exposed, which increases the total number of people at risk. Enforcement should go further. For example, homeowners’ failure to issue the required notices should result in significant fines and/or possible criminal penalties, which could help fund lead abatement programs. Additionally, increased government investment in the removal of lead pipes and lead-contaminated materials in homes would expedite a reduction in the number of new cases of lead-related poisoning or disorders due to lead exposure.
Greater Public Awareness
If landlords and property owners diligently complied with all the rules and regulations, current policies might go far enough to protect the public from exposure. We need to bring more public attention to this issue, so people will read their leasing contracts more closely before signing. But written notification alone is not enough to enforce current regulations nor help the public make informed decisions about housing. Had I been provided with this information beforehand or made aware of the need to ask my landlord about potential hazardous exposures, I might’ve been spared from moving into a sick home. With any luck, this post might inform others and prevent them from having the same experience.
Michelle Haberstroh is a graduate student at the University of Illinois Springfield, pursuing an MPH with a certification in Epidemiology, and an MA in Human Services with a concentration in Child and Family Services. She is currently completing an internship with JPHMP.