Exposure to lead comes from several sources, primarily the paint used in housing, leaded gasoline, and lead-contaminated drinking water. Of these sources, lead paint and lead paint dust are the most common. Lead paint dust is actually more dangerous than lead paint chips because smaller particles of lead are more easily absorbed.
Despite a worldwide movement to ban the use of lead in paint, paint manufacturers and the lead industry funded a massive effort in the United States to delay any sort of legislation regarding lead. By 1971 it was estimated that two hundred children a year died from lead poisoning. In 1971, Congress finally took action by passing the Lead Based Poisoning Prevention Act restricting residential use of lead paint and banning its use on toys and children’s furniture. Unfortunately, marine paint, farm equipment paint, automobile paints and industrial finishes are not covered by this Act and continue to contain lead.
By the time the United States caught up with European lead regulation, millions of tons of lead had been applied to the exterior and interiors of buildings, cribs, toys, and porch railings. One group estimates that there are 3 million tons of lead in the environment and 57 million housing units that still contain some amount of lead paint. Most housing built before 1978 has some lead paint. House built before 1950 are potentially a greater risk as older paints had higher concentrations of lead.
A blood test is the only reliable way to diagnose lead poisoning. The test results are measured in micrograms per deciliter. In the 1960’s, people were not considered lead poisoned until the blood level was 60 mg/deciliter. In 1978 the threshold number was cut to 30 mg/deciliter, and it was lowered again in 1985. Currently, the Center for Disease Control states the threshold for lead poisoning is just 10 mg/deciliter.
It is estimated that 1 out of every 10 preschoolers suffers from some form of lead poisoning. Children are at greater risk than adults because their bodies absorb up to 50% of the lead they ingest while adults retain only 10%. Children age seven and younger are in a special risk group due to developmental difficulties associated with lead exposure. Even low levels of lead can block an infant’s mental development. Lead exposure is linked with reduced intelligence, learning disabilities, low graduation rates, and criminal behavior. In adults, risks include increased blood pressure and the potential for stroke, kidney disease, and cancer for individuals whose MCL (maximum contaminant levels) are raised over a lifetime of exposure.
National lead reduction efforts have continued in the form of the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act passed by Congress in 1992. This law affects landlords who must inform potential tenants of the presence of lead paint on the rental property and/or perform lead abatement to lessen the risk of exposure. Disclosure of the presence of lead to potential buyers of a home is also mandated by law. Lead inspections are the legal right of potential buyers as are inspections for radon and asbestos. Contractors should also test for lead prior to any renovation work to prevent liability for raising lead dust or uncovering lead paint during construction. The federal government itself has been required to abate its own properties constructed prior to 1978. Even with the reduction efforts of Congress, it is estimated that over 3.5 million homes in the United States still contain hazardous levels of lead paint or lead-contaminated dust.
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