If you live in a building that was constructed before 1978, lead is likely present on the property in the form of paint, pipes, or solder used on pipes. The risk is especially high in pre-1950 buildings in urban areas. However, the situation often can be fixed without needing to move. You should know the scope of your rights and options if a lead hazard arises in your rental home.
Federal Laws on Lead Hazards
Under federal law, your landlord does not need to test for lead or address it. As of 1996, they do need to tell you anything that they know about lead paint hazards on the property before you sign or renew a lease. If you were in your current home in 1996, the landlord needs to disclose this information when you renew your lease. Landlords also need to give you a lead hazard information booklet by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Any violations of the disclosure rules can expose a landlord to penalties.
State and Local Laws on Lead Hazards
Some states have provided their own disclosure laws for lead-based paint. However, similar to the federal law, they usually do not require the landlord to test for it. In some cities, such as New York City, local ordinances require landlords to inspect for lead in units where children live, or in units that have been vacant for a certain time.
Tenant Safety During Renovations
Federal regulations require renovators to give tenants information about lead hazards before renovating rental units or common areas in buildings that were constructed before 1978. The renovator may be the contractor handling the renovations, or it may be the landlord if they are doing the work. If the renovations affect only certain units, only people in those units need to be notified. If the renovations affect common areas, everyone generally needs to be notified unless the common areas are used by only some of the tenants. Anyone affected has the right to get a free EPA pamphlet about renovations. Exceptions to the notice requirement are emergency renovations, minor repairs or maintenance, renovations in buildings that have been certified as not containing lead paint, or renovations to common areas for three or fewer units.
Identifying and Addressing Lead Hazards
If your landlord has not tested for lead, you may need to hire a licensed professional to determine the exact extent of the lead in your home. You can also conduct a more general assessment on your own by using a home testing kit for paint or asking a plumber about pipes.
Lead is a health hazard only if it is deteriorating. If you suspect that you have a problem, you should take certain precautions to minimize your exposure and tell the landlord about it promptly. (If your precautions result in extra costs, such as special vacuuming or additional household chores, you may be able to get your landlord to reduce your rent to compensate.) While the landlord does not have an explicit duty to fix a lead problem, they may have an incentive to avoid personal injury claims. These often result in substantial settlements or verdicts, especially if children are involved. You should make sure to collect evidence showing that the landlord knew about the problem in case you need to establish liability in a lawsuit later.
Often, states and cities with explicit lead abatement laws have agencies that can come to the property and inspect it. They can order the landlord to address any hazards that an inspection reveals.
Moving Out Because of Lead Hazards
In extreme instances of lead exposure, you may be able to move out without needing to pay any further rent. This may be appropriate if there is so much lead in the unit that it cannot be controlled. You also may need to move out temporarily if the landlord’s renovations to address the lead problem will cause dust and other exposure. Often, a tenant can sue a landlord in small claims court for the cost of temporary housing, or state law may provide this remedy explicitly.