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Symptoms and effects of lead poisoning and your legal rights
If there’s one thing you can predict about being a parent, it’s that parenting is unpredictable because children are unpredictable.
That’s just one reason why lead poisoning can be hard to detect in children. Symptoms of lead poisoning can include irritability or eating things that aren’t food, and—if you’re a parent, you already know this—sometimes kids are irritable or eat things they shouldn’t. That’s just the nature of being a kid.
However, lead poisoning can lead to other issues, some of which are very serious and result in life-long problems.
That’s one reason why we’re seeing lawsuits against landlords who failed to mitigate lead problems in rented properties. The harm that children (and adults) suffered from lead poisoning could have been prevented, and some landlords were negligent in allowing it to happen.
Causes of lead poisoning
The most common source of lead poisoning in children is exposure to lead-based paint or lead-contaminated dust in older buildings. Contamination could also affect air, water or soil.
Generally, lead enters the bloodstream through the mouth (eating a substance that contains lead) or by breathing contaminated dust particles. Children also become exposed to high levels of lead by drinking tap water in homes that have lead pipes.
Adults can be exposed to lead if they perform home or building renovations, handle batteries or work in auto repair shops.
Lead-based paint was banned in 1978 for use in homes in the U.S. However, it continues to be a problem in older residential buildings. Most children with lead poisoning were exposed after getting bits of lead paint in their mouths (likely from lead paint flaking off onto the floors, toys, etc.).
Common sources of lead exposure
The Mayo Clinic lists the following sources of lead exposure:
- Soil that contains lead particles from gasoline or paint, especially around highways and in cities
- Household dust that contains lead from paint chips or contaminated soil tracked in from outside
- Glazes found on some ceramic pottery, china or porcelain that leach into food (served or stored)
- Toys manufactured outside the U.S
- Cosmetics manufactured outside the U.S., specifically Tiro from Nigeria and Kohl
- Greta and azarcon herbal remedies, along with other medicines from India, China and elsewhere
- Mexican candy and other food items that contain tamarind
- Lead bullets from exposure time at firing ranges (You don’t need to be shot by the bullet to be exposed.)
- Occupations like auto repair, mining, pipe fitting, battery manufacturing, painting and construction (Workers can also bring it into their homes on their clothes or shoes.)
Illnesses and symptoms caused by lead poisoning
Symptoms of lead poisoning in children
- Learning difficulties
- Developmental delays
- Eating items like paint chips that are not food (pica)
- Loss of appetite
- Weight loss
- Hearing loss
- Abdominal pain
- Sluggishness and fatigue
Newborns who were exposed to lead before birth might be born prematurely, have a low birth weight or experience slowed growth.
Symptoms of lead poisoning in adults
- High blood pressure
- Miscarriage, stillbirth or premature birth in pregnant people
- Joint or muscle pain
- Reduced sperm count or abnormal sperm
- Difficulty with memory or concentration
- Abdominal pain
- Mood disorders
Long-term effects of lead exposure in children and adults
Even low levels of lead exposure can lead to long-term damage. Children can be affected by risks to brain development, and there can be irreversible, life-long problems.
At higher levels of exposure, both children and adults can experience kidney or nervous system damage. High levels of lead exposure could also cause seizures, loss of consciousness or death.
According to estimates by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), there are significant lead paint hazards in 29 million U.S. homes, and there are young children living in 3.3 million of them. The highest risks are in larger cities like Baltimore, Detroit, Milwaukee and Philadelphia—and minority children are disproportionately affected.
Who is liable for lead exposure?
Because lead exposure is preventable with proper remediation and building codes for residential structures ban the use of lead-based paint, a landlord has a duty to ensure that a rental property is free from lead contamination.
However, the reality is more complicated than the legal theory.
A recent New York Times article explored the story of 2-year-old Joevonne (“J.J.”), who was diagnosed with lead poisoning after his mother noticed that he had no appetite and wasn’t talking as he had before.
J.J.’s mom, Selena Wiley, leased an older rental home in South Bend, Indiana, in 2016. She asked the property manager about lead paint and was assured that the home was safe. Two years later, she began seeing problems with little J.J. and took him to the doctor for evaluation.
His doctor said that his lead level was so high that he was in danger of serious damage to his brain and nervous system, and the doctor started him on a 19-day treatment to rid his body of lead. Meanwhile, a lead inspector found that there was lead paint and dust throughout the home.
J.J. is still experiencing symptoms of lead poisoning today, and there has been little legal recourse for his family.
In fact, the rental home where he lived is owned by a firm that is protected by limited liability companies, and its property insurer excluded lead from its policy coverage. And, while this is sad for little J.J. and his family, it’s far from usual. The Times’ reporting found that these practices are common throughout the U.S., and real estate and insurance companies have taken measures to shield themselves from liability in lead poisoning cases.
In other words, an insurance company can refuse to pay out from a landlord’s policy when a child is poisoned while living in a rental home. This allows property owners to feel less motivated to remediate a lead problem if one exists in the home. Some rental companies are also using other forms of legal manipulation (like creating shell corporations as LLCs to hide assets) to avoid liability for lead poisoning lawsuits.
What happened to J.J.?
J.J.'s family filed a lawsuit in 2020 against the owner of their home, and court action remains pending for a dispute over whether the insurance company’s lead exclusion is valid.
As for J.J., who is now 5 years old, there are displays of aggression, attention issues and developmental delays. He is behind where he should be with communication skills, and his words are often not understood by people outside his family. These are all typical outcomes of lead poisoning.
Proving lead poisoning and liability
Is it just... hopeless?
No, not at all.
HUD created a Title X form called Federal Disclosure and Information of Lead-based Paint and/or Lead-based Paint Hazards, which became required after the Residential Lead-based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992.
This act requires that a landlord or seller must disclose any information about lead-related hazards, including their location and the condition of the painted surfaces. Additionally, they must provide records or reports on lead-based paint or hazards associated with the property. There must also be an attachment that confirms that the seller or landlord has complied with the notification requirements.
However, every personal injury lawsuit involves these elements:
A landlord has a duty to maintain a safe and healthy living environment for their tenants. This is incontrovertible. If they have not taken measures to remediate lead, then they are breaching their duty.
This is twofold: First, there’s a contractual and legal duty to disclose and remediate any hazards associated with lead paint. Second, the landlord must provide a safe living environment.
Causation could be the more difficult element to prove. Your child might suffer from a variety of symptoms, but your lawyer would need to prove that they were caused by the child’s having ingested lead paint while living in that particular place—and there is no other conceivable cause of their symptoms (and no other place where they could have ingested lead paint).
That can be challenging if the family has lived in more than one location or if there was a possibility of exposure in a childcare setting or at the home of a family member. The attorney would essentially have to rule out the possibility that the child could have ingested lead paint at any other place where they’ve spent time—and that can be tough to do.
In addition to proving that the child was exposed to lead in a particular location, the lawyer also needs to prove that there is no other cause of the symptoms—that might include testing for genetic causes or other kinds of medical issues. There is a simple blood test to show the presence of lead in the bloodstream, but it would still need to be proven that it is the cause of the symptoms.
Finally, your lawyer would need to determine how much the family of an injured child is owed in damages.
You can claim damages that include:
- Medical treatment
- Ongoing educational or disability-related expenses
- Lost earning capacity of the child for lifetime income if they are left with disabilities that prevent them from earning a living
Preventing lead poisoning
The Mayo Clinic offers these tips for preventing lead poisoning:
- Both children and adults should wash their hands regularly, particularly after handling soil or outdoor substances. Wash before eating and at bedtime at a minimum. Children should also wash after handling outdoor toys.
- Clean dusty surfaces around your home with a wet mop or cloth. This includes furniture, window sills and other surfaces.
- Remove your shoes when you enter your home. This helps to keep lead-contaminated dust and soil from entering the house.
- Run cold tap water for a minute before using it. If you believe you could have lead pipes or fittings, flush out the water often. Don’t use hot tap water for cooking, making baby formula or drinking. Use cold water and heat it externally.
- Don’t allow children to play in the soil. If possible, provide a sandbox or grassy area for play space.
- Maintain a nutritious diet. Calcium, vitamin C and iron can help prevent lead absorption in the bloodstream. These can all be acquired through healthy eating habits.
- Check for peeling paint in your home. If your home is older than 1970, check for lead-based paint, avoid sanding (which generates dust particles) and paint over any problem spots quickly.
What to do if you suspect lead poisoning
If you believe you or your child is suffering from symptoms caused by lead poisoning, the 1st step is to seek medical treatment. While these conditions are not always reversible, there might be ways to treat some of the symptoms if handled quickly. You also want to have accurate information about lead levels and a diagnosis before you pursue a claim.
Next, seek the advice of a personal injury lawyer. Your lawyer can guide you through the lead poisoning claims process and advise you of the likelihood of success.