Childhood Lead Poisoning, Asthma, and Your Home

While our homes provide us with shelter and heat which keep us safe and protected from the harsh elements outside, they are often also hidden sources of illness which could seriously hurt us, and especially our children. Two of the most serious environmental diseases hiding in our homes are Lead Poisoning and Asthma. This chapter will explain what these two diseases are and what we all can do to prevent them or keep them under control. It will also touch on a law that was recently passed and codes that exist to protect our children’s right to a healthy home, and on how to enforce their rights in our own homes and neighborhoods.

Lead Paint and Childhood Lead Poisoning

Childhood Lead Poisoning is now the #1 environmental threat to children, according to public-health officials. And it is not only an urban disease. Lead poisoning affects children who live in wealthy suburbs just as it effects children in the cities. Even in 1991, it was estimated that 1 out of every 9 children under the age of 6 living in the US had enough lead in their blood to place them at serious risk. Since Massachusetts’ houses are so old, Lead Paint remains a grave danger here.

The fact is that Lead Poisoning is completely preventable. Get the facts (below) and learn how to protect your children and the children in your neighborhood from this serious health hazard.

What is Lead and Why Would it be in My Home?

Lead is a poisonous metal found in nature. Because it is durable and long-lasting (and because until recently people didn’t know that it was poisonous), it was used to make many things, including various items found in homes. As an inexpensive way of producing materials that would last a very long time, companies used lead to make pencils, house paint, pipes, cans, toys, cribs, furniture, and many, many other things. Even after it was discovered that lead was indeed a poison that was causing serious behavior disorders and learning disabilities in children, many companies continued to use it (while playing ignorant) because it was so cost-effective. In the mid-1970s, the government passed a law that banned the use of lead in the production of many things.

But because lead is so durable, many of our homes still have lead paint and lead pipes. In fact, if you live in a home that was built before 1978, the odds are that the paint on both the inside and the outside of your home contains poisonous lead! (This is unless you know, for a fact, that your home was officially “deleaded”, which means that a licensed “deleader” properly removed the lead paint hazards in your home.) And now that so much time has passed since the lead paint was applied to the walls in your home, it is now more dangerous than ever. As the original coat of lead paint is chipping, the lead poison is now freely exposed.

How Can My Child be Exposed to Lead Poison?

Children are most often poisoned by breathing in lead dust, especially around windows. Lead dust is created by chipping or peeling paint, opening and closing lead painted windows, making repairs or renovations to lead painted surfaces, and through normal wear and tear on the home. The dust is released into the air and then settles onto the floor and onto ledges, and gets on children’s hands and toys. When children put their hands and toys into their mouths (which is normal behavior for children), the lead poison is then ingested into their bodies. Children are also poisoned by putting their mouths on lead painted surfaces and eating lead paint chips, and by playing in lead-contaminated soil around the house.

Children may also be exposed to lead, although in smaller amounts, through drinking water that comes through lead pipes.

What Does Lead Poisoning Do to My Child?

Lead poisoning causes permanent damage to the brain, kidneys, and nervous system of children six years old and younger. Even low levels of lead in a child’s body can slow a child’s development, cause hearing loss and learning and behavioral problems. High levels can cause retardation, convulsions, and coma.

Lead poisoned children often have difficulty concentrating and following directions. In fact, children who have been lead poisoned are six times more likely to have reading problems and seven times more likely to drop out of school than other children.

Lead can harm children even before they are born. Pregnant women should also be conscious of the dangers of lead poisoning at home and at their workplace. Swallowing or inhaling lead while you are pregnant can increase the risk of prematurity, low birthweight and miscarriage.

How to Protect Your Children from Lead Poisoning

1. Get Your Child Tested

Usually children will show no sign or symptom of having lead poisoning. The only way to know whether or not your child has been poisoned is to have a Blood-Lead Test for her or him.

Your child’s doctor, health care provider, a local health clinic, or your local health department can test your child’s blood for lead (usually free of charge). You could also call the Massachusetts Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (CLPPP) at (800) 532-9571, to find out about places in your area where you could have your child tested.

Remember to ask the doctor to do the “blood-lead test”, not just an “EP” test, because the blood-lead-test is a better detector of lead.

Children under the age of six should be tested at least once or twice each year.

2. The New “Lead Law”

In 1996, housing, health care and children’s advocates fought for and saw the passing of what is known as the Lead Law. This state law requires the licensed removal or sealing of lead paint hazards in homes built before 1978 where any children under six years or younger live. Lead paint “hazards” includes loose lead paint or lead paint on windows and surfaces accessible to children. All homeowners (including owners of rental property and owners living in their own single-family homes) are responsible for complying with this law. (There are several programs that assist homeowners of all incomes to delead — with grants, tax credits and low-interest loans – that make it easier and much less expensive. For more information for homeowners on deleading and the resources out there to help finance it, call CLPPP at (800) 532-9571.)

There are two different ways for an owner to comply with the Lead Law.

  • Have all lead hazards properly deleaded. They must first have a licensed lead inspector test the home for lead and record all lead hazards.
  • Have only urgent lead hazards corrected. This temporary method is called “interim control.” For this, they must first hire a licensed risk assessorwho will determine what work must be done for “interim control.” Remaining lead hazards must be permanently deleaded within two years.

A homeowner who refuses to delead or comply with the law is legally liable for a child who is poisoned by the lead in the home. He cannot avoid responsibility by having his tenants sign an agreement that they accept the presence of lead paint. Complying with the law is the best protection any owner has from liability.

Also it is illegal for a homeowner to evict you or refuse to rent to you because of the lead paint in the apartment. Some homeowners will say that they cannot rent to families with young children because of lead paint. That is discrimination. (If you feel that you have been discriminated against or want more information, call the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination at (617) 727-3990.)

3. Deleading

“Deleading” means to remove or cover and seal lead violations. Not all lead paint must be deleaded. According to the law, only the following surfaces must be deleaded (even if they are intact, and not chipping or pealing):

  • Surfaces below five feet that can be “mouthed” by a child. These could include (but are not limited to) wall corners, doors, stairs, railings, windows, baseboards, and chair rails.
  • Parts of windows (with sills below 5 feet) that move or touch moving parts.

Most of the deleading work must be done by a licensed deleader, who will use safe techniques and clean up properly. Otherwise, it could be a very dangerous process, and even more harmful to the children. A homeowner or an agent may perform some of the specific tasks, but only with the permission of the inspector or risk assessor. When deleading is done, the licensed inspector must once again inspect the home before the tenants can move back in. When the inspector issues a Letter of Compliance or Letter of Interim Control, the apartment is safe to move back into.

4. How to Enforce the Lead Law in Your Home and Get Your Apartment Tested for Lead

Since 1996, all landlords are required to give their tenants two copies of the Tenant Lead Law Notification and the Tenant Certification Form. These are meant to make the tenants aware of the general dangers of lead poisoning, the new Lead Law, and whether or not there are lead hazards in the apartment. If there are lead hazards in the apartment your landlord is required to have definite plans for deleading.

If your landlord does not give you these forms at the time you move in, you can ask him to. Or you could call the Massachusetts Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program (CLPPP) at (800) 532-9571, and request that they send you the forms. You can then give the forms to your landlord to complete.

If your landlord refuses to deal with the forms, and if you fear that there might be lead hazards in you apartment, you can call the Boston Inspectional Services Department at (617) 635-5322 (or CLPPP to find out about other public inspectors in your area) for a free lead inspection. You are only eligible for this if there are children under 6 years old in your apartment. You can also choose to take this opportunity to have a (free) complete State Sanitary Code inspection done in your apartment, in addition to the lead inspection, to make sure that the apartment is indeed “up to code” in other ways. (Refer to the Inspection section of chapter 5, Bad or Unhealthy Conditions in Your Apartment.) The inspector will then send a copy of the report to you and to your landlord. [Remember that it is your right to have your apartment inspected, and it is illegal for your landlord to harass or penalize you for it.]

If you find that there are lead hazards in the apartment and your landlord still refuses to deal with them in a proper and legal way, call CLPPP to find out how they can help you enforce your right to a lead-free home. If you live in the Boston area, you can also call the Lead Poisoning Department of the Greater Boston Legal Services at (617) 357-5757 x3998, to find out more about your legal rights and how you can proceed to have them enforced.

5. A Nutritious Diet Can Help Prevent Lead Poisoning

While it is only a temporary way of protecting your children, a nutritious and well-balanced diet keeps kids healthier and less vulnerable to the damage that lead poisoning can have on their little bodies. Foods that are high in calcium (like milk and milk products, tofu, and green leafy vegetables), iron (like lean meats, fish, beans, and real peanut butter), and vitamin C (like citric fruits and veggies like tomatoes and green peppers) can help keep lead from being absorbed by their bodies. Also, it’s best to keep them away from very fatty foods (like french-fries, chips and deep-fried foods). It is healthier to feed them more frequently during the day — like 4-6 smaller meals rather than 2-3 large meals, because children absorb less lead on a full stomach.

6. Other Tips to Help Protect Your Children

  • Try to wash your children’s hands and toys frequently and keep their fingernails short and clean.
  • It’s best to use bottled water for drinking, cooking, and making baby formula, if you can. If not, use only the cold water tap. Hot tap water picks up more of the lead from the pipes. If the cold water hasn’t been used in 4 hours, run the tap for a little while until you feel a drop in temperature, before you use the water.
  • You can temporarily reduce the lead hazards in your home by frequently cleaning the areas where lead dust and paint chips come from (like areas around the windows, doors and floorboards) and where the dust settles (like floors, ledges and your kids’ play areas). Keep your children away when you’re cleaning.

    Use plastic gloves, paper towels, and a spray bottle with a non-abrasive (not too harsh) household cleaner for cleaning lead painted areas. Scrub well with the cleaner, rinse the area with clean water, and then be sure to seal the used gloves and paper towels in a plastic bag and throw them away.

    Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up lead paint chips or dust. This could spread the lead dust into the air and contaminate your vacuum or broom.

  • Some parents chose to cover up areas that have loose paint with tape or contact paper until the home is deleaded. But, you must still clean the areas regularly as advised above.

Asthma and Your Home

Asthma is the most common chronic childhood disease today. Public-health officials estimate that 4.8 million children under 18 years old have asthma, and many others have “hidden” or undiagnosed asthma. A local (Jamaica Plain – Roxbury) canvass that City Life conducted in 1997 identified 1 in 4 households with members suffering from asthma (the majority were children). Asthma is the most common cause of children missing school due to chronic disease.

While asthma is a disease that effects people of all ages, the biggest recent increase in asthma cases has been among children, whose bodies are the most vulnerable to the environmental threats that cause asthma. The majority of these threats hide in our homes; and so our homes (and sometimes the homes of our day-care providers) become the source of our children’s sickness.

Even though asthma cannot be cured, it can almost always be controlled. By paying attention to what actually triggers your child’s asthma and dealing with those triggers, you can keep her/his asthma under control and prevent it from becoming worse.

The following section will give you an idea of the things you can do (and the responsibilities your landlord has) to make your home a safer and healthier place for your child with asthma.

What is Asthma?

People with asthma have sensitive airways or breathing tubes. These tubes react to “triggers” which cause them to swell and tighten up, making it difficult to breath. “Triggers” can be a variety of things: basic allergies, viral respiratory infections (infections in their lungs or breathing tubes), or airborne irritants. The most common asthma triggers are allergies to dust and dust mites, cockroaches, mice, rats, pets and their fur or feathers, mold, pollen, and exposure to cigarette smoke, fumes, and very cold air — many of these can be found in the home. And often rugs and carpets collect these triggers and keep them active.

While wheezing is a characteristic of asthma, it is not the most common symptom. Frequent coughing or respiratory infections (like pneumonia or bronchitis) are common symptom of asthma and “hidden” asthma. A child who often coughs after running or crying or at night should be evaluated for asthma. Your child’s doctor, health care provider, or a local health clinic can evaluate your child.

What are My Landlord’s Responsibilities in Keeping the House Safe from Asthma Triggers?

Your landlord is responsible for keeping your apartment safe and sanitary, according to the State Sanitary Code. Some triggers in your house may be caused by Code violations in or around your home. These include chronic dampness, mold, mildew, and dust mites; rats and cockroaches; and fumes and heating problems.

Refer to the Housing Code Checklist at the end of this manual to help you evaluate your apartment for Asthma triggers. Codes that refer to conditions that, when violated, can act as asthma triggers, are marked with an astrix (*). If, after using the Checklist, you think there might be code-violations in your home, refer to Chapter 5, Bad or Unhealthy Conditions in your Apartment to find out how to proceed.

Some Changes You Can Make at Home to Decrease Contact with Asthma Triggers

The following are some things you can do to make your home healthier and safer for your child with asthma:

Cigarette Smoke

  • Do not smoke or allow others to smoke in the home, car, or around the person with asthma.

Pets, Fur and Feathers

  • If possible, do not have a pet; or choose one without fur or feathers, like a fish.
  • If you have a pet, keep it off of furniture and out of the bedroom of the child with asthma.
  • Avoid using pillows, jackets, furniture, or bedclothes that are made with feathers.

House Dust and Dust Mites.

  • Carpets and rugs can collect a lot of dust and other allergens. It is best to not have carpets and rugs. But if you choose to, vacuum and wash them frequently, but only when the child with asthma is not around.
  • Mop the floors, and wipe down ledges and other dust-collecting areas with a damp cloth frequently.
  • Frequently change the filters and clean the vents of heaters, laundry machines and kitchen appliances.
  • If the person who is doing the cleaning has asthma, it helps to wear a mask.
  • Keep especially the bedrooms uncluttered and dust-free.
  • Ask your doctor for a prescription for an allergy-proof mattress, boxspring, and pillow covers.


  • Houseplants can get moldy roots, and dusty leaves.
  • Air out bathrooms after use.
  • Clean out air conditioners and dehumidifiers regularly.

Mice, Rats, and Cockroaches

  • Keep trash covered.
  • Keep foods in plastic or glass containers.
  • Keep surfaces clean of food and water.

Fumes and Odors

  • Avoid perfumes and cleaning agents with strong odors.
  • Use roach traps instead of roach sprays.
  • If you must use roach sprays or if the home is being fumigated, air out the home well before returning.
  • Open windows when using chemicals for cleaning or other things.

Outdoor Air Pollution, Heat, Cold Air, and Allergens

  • Try to avoid spending too much time outdoors on high pollution, high pollen, very windy, very hot, very humid, or very cold days.
  • On high pollen days, dry your laundry inside.
  • On cold days, cover nose and mouth.
  • Try to stay away from diesel fumes and car exhaust.