Written by attorney Jeffrey M Feuer

Lead Poisoning -- Rights and Remedies in Massachusetts

What Is Lead Poisoning?

Lead is a poisonous metal that can cause serious and permanent damage to a young child. Lead poisoning is usually caused by a child swallowing very small lead paint chips or breathing in lead dust. Most children are poisoned through their normal daily activities, such as playing on the floor or in the yard and putting their fingers, toys or clothes in their mouth. When there is lead dust or dirt on their fingers, toys or clothes, children can become lead poisoned.

Even low levels of lead in a young child’s body can cause IQ deficiencies, reading and learning disabilities, hearing and speech problems, reduced attention span, hyperactivity and behavior problems. High levels of lead can cause permanent damage to a child’s brain, kidneys, or central nervous system. Very high levels of lead can cause convulsions, severe mental retardation and even death.

Children under the age of six absorb lead more easily than adults, and the lead can remain undetected in the body for a long time. Lead in the body of a pregnant woman can hurt her baby before birth and can also cause problems with the pregnancy. The harm done by lead poisoning may never go away and could permanently affect a child’s growth, learning, and development.


How Can You Tell If Your Child Has Lead Poisoning?

** Most children who develop lead poisoning do not look or act sick. Children who seem perfectly healthy may still be lead poisoned. A simple blood test by your doctor or health clinic is the only sure way to know if your child has lead poisoning. If you have seen your child with paint chips or paint dust on her hands, face, toys or clothing, or if you have noticed a lot of dust or chipping paint in your house or apartment, you should have your child tested right away.

Children under the age of six should be tested regularly for lead poisoning. The test for lead is very simple and involves taking a small sample of blood. Community health centers, private clinics and doctors can perform this test, and the cost of the test is usually covered if you have health insurance, including MassHealth.

A blood lead level tells you how much lead is in your child’s body. Most children have lead levels under 10.Although your child may not look or act sick in any way,a blood lead level of 10 or more is not safe and requires medical attention. IF YOUR CHILD’S LEAD LEVEL IS 10 OR MORE, you should have your home tested for lead as soon as possible. A child under 6 years old with a blood lead level of 25 or more is lead poisoned,and may need to be hospitalized.


Treatment for Lead Poisoning

** There are different types of medical treatment for lead poisoning. A doctor may give your child iron pills, medications or injections to remove the lead from the blood. Follow-up care can last for many months until your child’s blood lead levels go down to a safe level. A doctor may also tell you to change your child’s diet and add more foods with iron and calcium in them.

During and after treatment, your child will have to have blood tests to see if the blood lead levels have changed. If your child is lead poisoned, the state lead program or your local board of health must inspect your home for lead as soon as possible and any lead hazards on the property will have to be removed or repaired by your landlord.


The Massachusetts Lead Law

** The Massachusetts Lead Poisoning Prevention Act (the "Lead Law") requires a property owner to remove or cover all lead paint hazards in any home where a child under six years old lives.Whenever a child under six lives in a rental property, the property owner has a responsibility to discover whether there is any lead paint on the property and to remove or properly cover any lead paint hazards to protect the young children living there.

Lead paint hazards include: surfaces that have cracked, chipped, peeling or otherwise loose lead paint on them; intact lead paint on windows, doors, baseboards, and other moveable or impact surfaces, and painted portions of walls that are five feet or less from the floor; and other painted surfaces that are readily accessible to children.

The Lead Law covers ALL OWNERS of all residential rental property, including public and subsidized housing. The Board of Health or Inspectional Services Department ("ISD") can order a landlord to remove or correct lead hazards in a property where a young child lives. If a landlord fails to correct those dangerous lead conditions in a timely fashion, she can be held legally responsible for any injuries that are caused by her failure to remove those lead paint hazards.


Enforcing Your Rights under the Lead Law

** If you think that your child has been lead poisoned, make sure she is tested and see a doctor as soon as possible to obtain the proper treatment. If your child has been lead poisoned as a result of illegal lead paint in your home, you have a right to sue the landlord for the injuries your child has suffered.Under the law, your child can file such a case up until her 21st birthday. An experienced lawyer will be able to represent you and your child without you paying any fees or costs unless you win your lawsuit.

A landlord is responsible for all of the injuries a lead-poisoned child may suffer (such as the cost of medical treatments, learning disabilities, future problems in obtaining a job), even if the landlord claims that she did not know there was lead paint in your apartment. It is a property owner’s responsibility to find the lead paint and remove or cover it any time there is a child under six years of age living on her property. If she does not do so, she is responsible for the harm that her failure causes to your child. Under some circumstances, the landlord can also be forced to pay you triple damages for failing to remove the lead paint after being ordered to do so by a local Board of Health or ISD.

If dangerous lead hazards are found in your home in violation of the Lead Law, you may be able to get your rent reduced, get back some of the rent that you have paid to the landlord, or even get damages of up to three months' rent. A landlord may not evict you, or increase your rent, or refuse to renew your lease in retaliation for reporting a suspected lead paint violation to your landlord, or to the Board of Health or ISD. An attorney who is experienced in handling childhood lead poisoning cases and landlord/tenant law can help you determine what your rights are and how you and your children can be compensated for any injuries that you or they have suffered.

Additional resources provided by the author

For more information, go to the websites (listed below) of the Massachusetts Department of Health, Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program and the Boston Public Health Commission Lead Poisoning Prevention Program.

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