Lead testing next steps
July 31, 2009 12:59 PM   Subscribe

My wife and I recently had some lead testing done in our apartment which turned up some very high levels. Now we are trying to figure out what to do next. Issues involving lead testing, abatement, leases and tenancy inside.

My family (myself, my wife and our 18 month old daughter) moved into our current apartment in New Haven, Connecticut, in the beginning of June. When we looked at the place we were happy with condition it was in, as the paint seemed new and in good condition. On moving in we noticed that there was some old, chipping paint in the window beds. Last week we had some unofficial testing done by a local lead abatement company. We had done the same thing in our previous apartment, and gotten back borderline levels. We got the results for our new apartment back yesterday and the levels are very high, as in 10-50 times the acceptable limit. The soil in the backyard tests at 4x the limit.

My understanding of CT state law is that if we have an official inspection done and their findings match ours, the landlords are responsible for the lead abatement. My wife spoke to an inspector from the New Haven DPH, who confirmed this, but could not give us much guidance as to how long, difficult or expensive the abatement process might be. We brought this all up with our landlords and they expressed a desire to not go through official channels and maybe have some cleanup done off the record. Our landlords are an older couple who are very sweet and well intentioned, but we don't really trust their ability to deal with the cleanup on their own.

The way I see it, our options are either to get an official inspection and start the process of getting the lead cleaned up, or to move out and find somewhere else to live. Since we would need to vacate at least ourselves and maybe our stuff during the abatement process, and going the official route wouldn't put us on good terms with the landlords, we're currently inclined to go the "move out" route.

This would involve breaking our lease which lasts for another 10 months. Our landlords are not particularly computer savvy, so they have asked if we would do the work of listing and showing the place, which is fine. Our main concern is that if we can't find someone to move in by the time we move out that they will try to hold us responsible for the rent. We would like to get something in writing from them officially breaking the lease.

So the question is, is this a situation where we need a lawyer? If we destroy both copies of the lease, is that good enough? Are there other factors or options that we haven't thought of?

Just as a note, today was our daughter's 18 month checkup and we had her blood tested. We should know the results early next week, but since we've been here such a short time I expect that every thing is ok. Also, when we look at new apartments, we plan on testing before we sign a lease.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld to Home & Garden (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Okay, I had a similar experience in a different state (New Jersey) when I was pregnant. I was due in only a couple of weeks, FINALLY got the landlord to do the state-mandated testing, and it came up leady. They wanted us to temporarily relocate for several weeks (continuing to pay rent in the meantime) while they fixed it up; they said it was not possible (nor did we want to) remain in the house while they did so. They were not willing to foot the bill for our relocation, even though they expected us to pay rent during the time we were unable to inhabit the house.

I told them this was not acceptable, and that we would terminate the lease. They called a lawyer, who contacted me and was quite reasonable about the whole thing. I told them we would move out within 14 days (the end of April), paying April's rent in full and surrendering our security deposit in exchange for mutual termination of the lease. We both signed an agreement stating these terms.

Advantage to us: Not having to raise a child in a leady house. Didn't help us anyway, since she was born with and died from brain cancer before 1 year old.

Advantage to them: The opportunity to avoid having to fix the paint issue in general, by renting to tenants without children. As long as they disclosed the lead, they would not have to fix it. They got an extra month's rent (the security deposit) to cover the potential that they might not find new tenants right away.

Different state law = ymmv.
posted by bunnycup at 1:05 PM on July 31, 2009

I think you have leverage here. The landlords must do an abatement. It is expensive, and it must be done properly and legally, otherwise instead of chewing on paint your toddler will be inhaling it. You should ask out of your lease, no stings attached, for not requiring the abatement.
posted by Gungho at 1:12 PM on July 31, 2009

At the very least clean up the chips and dust from the window beds with a damp cloth, bag the cloth and toss it. Do it as often as needed to keep dust from accumulating.

The good thing about lead dust is that it does not stay in the air long (falling like a lead you-know-what) but the working of the windows will keep on creating dust. Chips are not as much of a concern unless your kid is playing with them.

Most older residences have lead-based paint, and as long as it's sound, it's not a problem. The lead in the soil would have come from years of repainting, usually of the trim.

If there is any sort of public, third party testing service, or possibly an industrial hygienist, then I might also consider that. A lead abatement company makes it's living from lead abatement and it's sort of a conflict to do the testing also. It may very well be accurate but usually environmental testing is done by parties which do not have a stake in the results.

Good luck. Email me (profile) if you need any more info.
posted by Danf at 1:12 PM on July 31, 2009

Some friends got out of their lease early by pointing out that any lost income from rent was going to be less than the large expense of the legally-required deleading if they stayed there.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 1:16 PM on July 31, 2009

Great answers so far.

bunnycup: Thanks for the quick and thoughtful response. Hearing about your experience with abatement makes me more eager to avoid it. I'm so sorry about your daughter. I can't even imagine.

Gungho: I agree that right now we are in the position of power. What I'm worried about is that if the place goes empty, my family and I will be all moved in to our fabulous new lead-free apartment and our landlords will try to extract more money from us now that we don't have the leverage of threatening to get the place tested.

Danf: I've been reading about cleaning lead dust and the plan is for my wife and daughter to stay with the in-laws on Sunday while I do some cleanup. We're probably going to be here for a least a few weeks, so that makes sense. I'm not really concerned with the conflict of interest with the company that did the testing, as their business is actually training people to do lead abatement, not doing it themselves. They gave us the testing swipes, told us how to use them and then sent the samples to a lab for testing. We have the lab's test report. They have been extremely helpful, and haven't tried to sell us anything.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 1:34 PM on July 31, 2009

You should be aware that deleading the apartment could cost anywhere between $5,000 and $40,000 or more. So while you may be allowed by law to require your landlords to do that, you might not want to do that to this "older couple who are very sweet and well intentioned."

I would do the following, in order:

1. Damp mop the unit, and wipe down areas like windowsills and doorjambs where there is likely to be lead paint and where there are friction surfaces. You can do a lot to keep lead exposure under control by doing that.

2. Get your daughter's lead levels tested.

3. Decide whether to move. Obviously the success of 1 and the results of 2 will effect this decision. If you decide to move, your landlords should be perfectly willing to have you break the lease. I don't know whether you'd want that in writing or not.

Good luck!
posted by alms at 1:38 PM on July 31, 2009

If you move out without reaching a termination agreement with the landlord, they could hold you accountable for rent through the end of the term. Generally, if you get the signed agreement we got to terminate the lease, then they can't do that.

I will look and see if I can find the agreement we used - it will be New Jersey law, so it won't be jurisdictionally correct, but it will give you an idea of what my landlord's lawyer and I (a lawyer) worked out. If I can find it, I'll drop you an email.

PS - Thanks for the kind words about my daughter.
posted by bunnycup at 1:38 PM on July 31, 2009

Yes, the abatement company definitely had a conflict of interest. You could consider getting it retested by an independent firm. Do some research and find one that is truly independent.
posted by alms at 1:40 PM on July 31, 2009

Thanks bunnycup. I'm guessing if I do some digging online I might be able to find some kind of generic lease termination agreement we could use. I think the chances that things come to a point where we need it are low, but it would be nice to get something in writing.

Just to clarify, according the their website, the company that did the testing is does industrial hygiene and environmental chemistry. As far as I know they don't do any abatement work themselves.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 1:53 PM on July 31, 2009

We had lead abatement done on our house for free through a Fed/City grant (in NC). It took about 10 months for the actual contractors to start after we initiated the whole process, though the work only took a week. The costs were covered 100%, and it raised the value of our property (new windows, well-sealed exterior.) If your landlords are not ridiculously rich from their property holdings, there's money out there to help offset the costs.

Our daughter was 10 months when we moved in, about 20 months when it was done, and her tested lead levels were always fine.
posted by bendybendy at 2:03 PM on July 31, 2009

You say your wife spoke to the guys in DPH, but you might want to talk to your alderman to figure out the steps you need to take. (And if you're in the 10th Ward, talk to both Brison and Elicker.)
posted by cobaltnine at 2:58 PM on July 31, 2009

cobaltnine: Not a bad idea. We're actually ward 9, so maybe I'll get in touch with Lemar (I've never spoken with him, but we used to live two houses over from him.) I did, however, spend a rainy day in 2006 in a parking lot with Allan Brison. I was holding up a "Ned Lamont" sign, while he held up a "Cliff Thornton for Governor" sign. I don't think either of us was very happy at the end of the day.

bendybendy: Thanks for the data point. I'm sure this varies from state to state, but knowing that the process could potentially take that long is another strike against abatement.
posted by Lazlo Hollyfeld at 6:31 PM on July 31, 2009

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