The History of the Lead-Based Paint Disclosure

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When a Chicago renter signs a lease or a lease renewal they usually receive a whole raft of additional disclosures. Lease packets in the modern era can include as much as 50 pages of disclosures about health issues ranging from radon to sprinkler systems to bedbugs. Back in the spring of 2016 we ran a long series on the history of one of those disclosures, the summary of the Chicago Residential Landlord-Tenant Ordinance. Today we will be discussing the history of another one, the lead-based paint disclosure.

Next to the CRLTO summary, lead-based paint disclosures are probably the most consistent inclusion in a Chicago lease packet. By federal law, they must be included with every lease and lease renewal in residential buildings constructed prior to 1978 with the exception of senior housing. Most renters will also be familiar with the booklet titled "Protect Your Family From Lead in Your Home," which is published by the EPA in six languages and also must be included with every lease that requires a lead paint disclosure.

Benefits Outweighed Risks

Lead was known to cause severe health problems way back in the year 200 BCE. Descriptions of the effects of lead poisoning are found in medical texts dating back to the ancient Greeks, and reappear consistently from then on. Julius Caesar's engineers advised against the use of lead pipes in the Roman aqueducts because of their harmful effects. But until the late 19th century, lead poisoning was common among heavy drinkers, painters, laborers, the military and high society women, all individuals who consistently and knowingly exposed themselves to high levels of the substance.

Lead was used to sweeten cheap wine and in the stills used to make rum. It was used as a basis for paints. Ammunition has of course been made mostly of lead throughout history. Face makeup was also lead-based for many years, as it created the appearance of an extremely pale white complexion. People knew it was harmful, but at the time it was considered to only cause severe harm in large doses. It would take until the 1950s for this attitude to change.

From Easels to Walls

White lead had been used in paints for centuries before it became popular for use in residential interiors. When mixed with linseed oil it made a thin film that was easy to work with but extremely durable. It was popular in the arts, industrial and military settings but not so much in homes. In fact it didn't catch on for interiors in the west until the late 19th century. Before that time people used wallpaper instead of paint. In fact, the oldest known pieces of wallpaper date from the early 16th century. It was no decor trend that caused the shift, but rather the growing popularity of Pasteur's 1877 germ theory of disease which put wallpaper into disfavor. The application of wallpaper could leave bubbles and pockets of paste that were ideal breeding grounds for germs.

Lead paint became the favored replacement for wallpaper. It was not only durable, but it could also stand up to repeated washing. In an era that saw multiple epidemics of influenza, bubonic plague, polio, smallpox and typhus while only slowly developing the vaccines to fight them, washable wall coverings were a crucial factor in disease control. It gained huge support not only from the public, but also from the US Government, which mandated its use in all public projects and would continue to mandate for over half a century despite growing knowledge of its hazardous nature.

Trouble in Queensland

The first signs of trouble with lead-based paint appeared in the late 19th century in Australia. US scientists had already learned to diagnose childhood lead poisoning, but it was a group of scientists in the subtropical state of Queensland, Australia who found that lead painted surfaces would decay into dusty powder under the hot sun. Ingestion of that dust was linked to symptoms of lead poisoning in children. By 1904 this link was already common knowledge in the medical community. But at the time, lead contamination of water and food was still a far greater problem in industrialized nations, so the thresholds for dangerous levels of lead in the blood were still very high. The ingestion of lead paint was assumed to be a side effect of toddlers eating paint chips due to juvenile pica, the compulsion to put inorganic things in the mouths. To that end, even the US had stopped using lead paint on cribs for infants by 1920, but it was still common elsewhere in homes.

Europe took notice of the problems with lead-based paint almost immediately. By 1909 the use of lead-based interior house paint had been banned in France, Belgium and Austria. But the use of white lead in the US peaked in 1922, and remained prevalent well into the 1960s.

Breakfast in America

Unfortunately it would take almost another century after the Australian discovery before the US would finally eliminate lead from homes. In the interim their gung-ho endorsement of the substance would see many generations of kids exposed to a poisonous substance that can cause brain damage, gastointestinal harm, neuromuscular harm and death.

The US in the early 20th century was a country almost constantly at war, see-sawing between severe economic depression and rapid industrialization. At the same time that lead was being vilified as a paint base in infant cribs, it was gaining massive popularity in another area of industry - the car. Leaded gasoline became popular in the 1920s and is intricately tied to the growth of the United States as an economic power. Between the lead in the drinking water, the lead in the food and the lead spewing out of the tailpipe of every vehicle in the country, it's little wonder that low level lead-based paint poisoning went unnoticed as a hazard for decades. Even when the League of Nations banned interior lead paint in 1922, the US refused to adopt the measure. It was far too useful and, as far as they knew, not a cause for acute lead poisoning when compared to other more obvious sources.

Chemists and engineers working for the US Goverment endorsed the use of lead paint in all federal projects until well into the 1960s. This included military projects, Native American reservations, federal office buildings and public housing projects. But the civilian medical community was developing a far different take on lead. In the late 1930s, researchers at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore first learned how to measure the concentration of lead in the blood. The early tests were far from precise, and indicated that concentrations of 80 micrograms per deciliter or higher were in the danger zone. Further advances since that time have taught us that this is only the point where victims of high level, acute lead poisoning start to show outward symptoms. The real damage starts at much lower concentrations.

Other Things Exist

The public started to turn its back on interior lead paint by the early 1940s. In 1941 a paint based on water and acrylics reached mass production. Finally the US had a viable, durable and washable alternative to lead-based paint. Following the spread of information about the hazards of high level lead poisoning, latex became the new primary option for interior paint.

But the federal government had a huge number of properties to maintain, and their own scientists continued to endorse the use of lead-based paint and only lead-based paint in all of these buildings. As the federally owned buildings got older and older, a clear schism emerged in wall coverings. The wealthy covered their walls in latex and, eventually, some even returned to wallpaper. But the poor lived in run-down government buildings with walls, windows and doors all slathered in that same combination of white lead and linseed oil that had been the government's darling for half a century.

Baltimore Sunshine

It was a further study in Baltimore in the late 1940s that brought everything to a head. They had by this time further refined their ability to detect lead in the bloodstream, and their studies of specific populations in the immediate area had shed some light on the differences between rich and poor. The highest concentrations of lead were found in the blood of kids from the projects. This wasn't an issue of toddlers eating random paint chips, as had previously been suspected. It was due to common household dust, that same sun-baked powder found in Queensland in the 1890s. Dust on the floors became dust on children's hands, and lead dust tastes particularly sweet. These kids weren't eating paint chips, they were just licking their fingers after crawling around on the floors in aging, government-owned tenements.

The city of Baltimore responded to the news pretty quickly. By 1951 they had banned the use of lead-based paint in housing city-wide. They were the first in the nation to do so. By 1955 a national standard existed banning lead-based paint, but it was a toothless and completely voluntary agreement. It would take another two decades years for the feds to back up this agreement with laws.

Outside Forces Intervene

In the end it wasn't concern for the health of inner-city children that caused the end of lead-based paint in the US. Rather, it was developments in environmental science and the automotive industry that brought lead to the forefront as a major pollutant in all areas of life. Concerns over pollution had been growing since the 1950s, and had been spurred to panic levels following the publication of Silent Spring in 1962. The rise of the environmental movement spelled the end of the road for lead in America.

In 1971 the US Congress passed the Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act. It didn't specifically ban lead paint nationwide. It created funds for treatment of lead paint poisoning, further research, and prohibited the use of lead paint in government owned buildings and buildings constructed with Federal assistance.

Along with the rise of the Green movement, the invention of the catalytic converter in the 1950s made the use of lead-based gasoline no longer necessary. By the mid 1970s, the newly formed EPA was enforcing emissions laws. By 1975 all new cars had to have catalytic converters, and unleaded gas started surging in popularity.

But it would take another 7 years to remove lead-based paint from the hands of private enterprise. In 1978 the US Consumer Product Safety Commission finally banned the sale of lead-based housepaint nationwide. No more cars would be made to spew lead into the air. No more residential walls would be drenched in a mixture of white lead and oil. But a century worth of houses still remained throughout the country with lead-based paint on every surface.

We Now Pause for the Republicans

1979 was the last year that a Democrat lived in the White House until the inauguration of Bill Clinton in January of 1993. Environmental concerns have always been more associated with the left-leaning Democrats. 1980 saw the beginning of three successive Republican presidential terms. The U.S. Senate had a Republican majority until January 1987. Both House and Senate had Democratic majorities from that point forward, but it was only in the final months of George H.W. Bush's presidency when the congress felt it safe to ram through a new law that addressed the needs of low income housing residents.

Once again, lead only caught the attention of Congress as an afterthought in the wake of a more widespread environmental monster of the week. In the late 1980s, media coverage spurred public panic about the cancer-causing properties of radon, leading to nationwide awareness campaigns and mass radon hysteria. Congress pretty much had to respond to the radon problem regardless of who was President.

In the spring of 1992, Bush Sr. was embattled in a vicious three-way campaign for re-election facing Democrat Bill Clinton and Independent Ross Perot. Bush had earned the ire of his own party after raising taxes despite promising to the contrary during his 1988 campaign. Congress seized the opportunity to push through some laws about environmental hazards. In April of 1992 the Senate was working on a Radon Abatement bill that included a disclosure requirement for buyers of homes that could contain radon. In June of 1992, Representative Henry Gonzalez of Texas introduced House Resolution #5334, the Housing and Community Development Act. It was one of many bills that addressed the many buildings constructed prior to the 1978 ban that still had lead paint inside. The Bill had 16 separate "titles," or sections. It was Title X of the bill that took a page out of the similar Radon bill and required landlords and sellers to disclose the presence of lead-based paint and any known abatement procedures to renters and buyers.

H.R. 5334 passed the Senate on July 10. It passed the House on August 5. Anyone familiar with the workings of Congress will understand how incredibly rapid of a pace this is for a law with 16 sections, especially one dealing so heavily with the concerns of the poor under a Republican President. But on October 28, 1992, with his popularity in the tank and only five days to go before election day, Bush signed the bill into law.

Slow Uptake

Responsibility for enforcing the new law was placed in the hands of HUD and the EPA. The little booklets that you receive with every lease date from this era, although they have changed form and format several times in the intervening years. But like any new law, it would take some additional tragedies before its acceptance became widespread. In fact, it wasn't until 2000 when the need for stricter enforcement of the disclosure law became apparent.

The feds cannot be everywhere, no matter what your paranoid uncle might think. Responsibility for enforcing the lead paint disclosure law largely fell to individual states. It was the sudden lead paint poisoning death of a 2 year old Sudanese infant refugee living in New Hampshire just 12 days after her arrival in the country that brought nationwide attention to the matter of disclosure.

Longterm residents of the US might have known about the hazards of lead, but Sunday Abek's mother had never encountered it before. If her landlord of her cheap apartment disclosed the presence of lead to her, she certainly did not understand the significance. The infant ingested enormous amounts of lead paint while playing on the porch. Sunday Abek's death was the first lead poisoning fatality in the US in a decade. It led to widespread testing of immigrant children in her neighborhood. Under medical scrutiny, lead levels in the Manchester, NH region fell off until the area got another wave of immigrants five years later, when it spiked again.

This and similar incidents caused medical professionals and state officials across the country to look to their own laws on the enforcement of the lead-paint ban, and enforcement of the federal disclosure law. Widespread education of a new generation of renters led some to ask their landlords for disclosures and, more importantly, to sue when those disclosures weren't provided. Curiously, the original draft of the law required landlords to disclose the presence of lead in the actual lease. The House decided to make it a separate disclosure form in order to avoid massive numbers of lawsuits. The massive lawsuits happened anyhow, they just took much longer and in the interim a lot more kids were poisoned.

Modern Concerns

It's been 40 years since the sale of lead-based housepaint was banned in the United States. Any landlords who faced the initial wave and even the second wave of anti-lead campaigns in the 70s and 90s are long retired, or at least on the verge of it. Many apartment building owners now have no idea if lead abatement was performed on their properties in the intervening years. The best that many owners of vintage buildings can do nowadays is give a disclosure saying "we don't know and we haven't tested." It is estimated that at least 37 million US residences still contain substantial amounts of lead paint.

While the use of lead paint has been banned in residential settings for 40 years, it is still manufactured and in use in commercial and industrial settings. Consumers who visit stores or warehouses can pick it up on their shoes and track it home.

90 years ago the researchers at Johns Hopkins thought that lead poisoning was a risk at blood concentrations of 80 micrograms per deciliter. Modern advancements in testing and research have moved that threshold progressively downward. We now know that low level lead poisoning can occur at concentrations as low as 10 micrograms per deciliter, and that's all it takes to cause neurological damage to a child.

Beyond the issues of new infections, there are the social repercussions we face in dealing with the last generations who grew up when lead-based paint was legal. Multiple studies including some spanning several decades have linked the rise in dementia and Alzheimer's cases to the prevalence of lead in the homes of today's seniors when they were kids in the 1940s and '50s, although most of those studies involve monkeys instead of humans. There are even some who attribute the rise of the "new right" to an older generation suffering the long term effects of low-level lead poisoning in their youth, although this link is largely anecdotal and, in my opinion, pretty elitist.

But regardless of any link between lead and dementia, there is no doubt that the U.S. will be feeling the effects of our century-long love affair with lead-based paint for many years to come. Hopefully the next time your landlord hands you one of those blue "Protect your Family" booklets, you'll understand why they're doing it, and its importance to your safety and that of your kids.

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Published by

Kay Cleaves