Unleaded Truth Part II: Nevada’s Lead Contamination Issue

lead paint As noted yesterday, there are three jurisdictions in Nevada which have county health departments.  Health departments in the two metropolitan areas (Clark and Washoe counties) have addressed the issue of lead contamination in their areas.  In the remaining jurisdictions it appears to be a matter of state regulations, and the interest of county commissioners, as to whether particular attention is paid to toxic contamination in homes and businesses; and, it’s a matter of reliance on EPA regulations to protect renters and buyers.

All jurisdictions are required to uphold the provisions of the “federal Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act enacted in 1992. This law is commonly known as Title X (ten). Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations implementing Title X apply to rental property built before 1978.” [Openjurist]

“Before ratification of a contract for housing sale or lease, sellers and landlords must disclose any known information concerning potential lead-based paint hazards and available records, must provide purchasers and lessees with a lead hazard information pamphlet, and must include specific language in the lease or contract related to lead. In addition, sellers must give buyers time to conduct a lead inspection. Most private housing, public housing, federally-owned housing, and housing receiving federal assistance built prior to 1978 are affected by this rule.” [EPA]

One issue raises up when we look at the forms for renters and prospective buyers.  The rental agents and sellers may check off a box on the forms indicating they have no knowledge of real, potential, or unsuspected lead contamination in housing constructed prior to 1978.  The form does not require the renter or seller to conduct any inspection to determine if lead contamination exists on the premises.  That’s left to the renter or buyer.

“Before ratification of a contract for housing sale or lease, sellers and landlords must disclose any known information concerning potential lead-based paint hazards and available records, must provide purchasers and lessees with a lead hazard information pamphlet, and must include specific language in the lease or contract related to lead. In addition, sellers must give buyers time to conduct a lead inspection. Most private housing, public housing, federally-owned housing, and housing receiving federal assistance built prior to 1978 are affected by this rule.” [EPA]  (emphasis added)

The current provisions require those renting property or selling property to give their renters information about the dangers of lead contamination, any known information about lead in the housing or common areas, and an attachment to the lease about the proper issuance of a lead contamination warning.   The expression caveat emptor comes to mind.

And, this can be a problem for residents of rural Nevada counties because the EPA list of certified lead contamination inspectors,  and those firms which are certified for lead contamination abatement projects are based in Las Vegas, North Las Vegas, Reno, and Sparks.  As we’d suspect, state law (NRS 439.4797) puts those counties having more than 700,000 residents in charge (read: Washoe and Clark) and those with less than 700,000 (every other jurisdiction) under the auspices of the State Board of Health.

Advice from the state board of health might be cold comfort to those seeking affordable rental housing in those outlying jurisdictions, it begins with:

“Tenants and landlords should work cooperatively to investigate and correct lead based paint or other hazards. Nevada law requires that a landlord must provide a habitable condition inside of the dwelling (NRS 118A.290). Check your rental or lease agreement to determine your responsibility to address daily maintenance issues or repairs.”  [health.nv.gov pdf]

Indeed, NRS 118A.290 requires a residence be suitable for human habitation, the operative phrase may be: “A dwelling unit is not habitable if it violates provisions of housing or health codes concerning the health, safety, sanitation or fitness for habitation of the dwelling unit…” and, no, there is no specific mention of lead contamination.

Let’s focus in on rental property for the moment and the problems which may be faced by middle or lower income level inhabitants of these properties when it comes to coping with the state guidelines for lead contamination issues.  A tenant is advised to document instances of lead contamination with letters, photos, “evidence of health problems,” and work orders from private inspectors or contractors. This raises a reasonable hypothetical question.

A landlord in a jurisdiction outside of the two major metropolitan areas has signed off on a statement indicating he or she has no prior knowledge of any lead based paid issues in the building.  A tenant later notices peeling and chipping paint on window sills. The landlord again explains that he or she has no knowledge that lead based paint was ever used in the building, and doesn’t know if the underlying coat(s) of paint were lead based.  It would appear that the landlord has done all that is required at this point. After this point in the process it’s up to the tenant to provide certified mail notification to the landlord; allow the landlord 14 days to respond; and, then if nothing happens (like a certified inspection) launch the legal process. The question becomes: Who is responsible for paying for the certified inspection? For the cost of the “work orders, and private inspections?”  Return with us now to the real world – the one in which a lower or middle income family may not have the monetary resources, or the time required, to get an inspection, and launch into the legal processes required to get an intransigent landlord to move on the issue.

Yes, it would be nice if the tenant and the landlord worked cooperatively to resolve lead contamination issues – and, again in the real world, if this cooperation is going to bite into the landlord’s bottom line how realistic is it to believe that the tenant isn’t have to go to extraordinary lengths to bring the issue to the landlord’s attention, the attention of local authorities, and the attention of those who may assist in the resolution (and abatement) process.  It’s not like legal aid services aren’t already backed up with indigent defense cases, immigration issues, and other legal matters.

There are two elements of the situation in Nevada generally, and the rural areas in particular.  First, the onus moves very quickly to the buyer or renter when it comes to the inspection or abatement of lead contamination problems. A buyer has ten days to “check for lead,” in rural areas this means the buyer has ten days to find the list of certified inspectors (an easy enough task), then find one in the local region (not so easy outside the metropolitan areas), then find one who has time and resources to do the work within the ten days (now things are getting more complicated), and have the certified inspector perform the inspection and file the results —

Secondly, those tenants and buyers outside the metropolitan areas do not have much local support in terms of specific housing regulations other than building codes, state guidelines and statutes, and the federal lead contamination statute with EPA regulations. Again, caveat emptor is alive and well when it comes to the inspection for, and abatement of, lead contamination in local housing.

Surely, some future session of the state Legislature might offer consideration to (1) enacting statutes requiring the creation of a local board of health in areas with over 50,000 residents instead of the current 700,000; (2) empowering the local boards to enact ordinances regarding the inspection for and abatement of lead contamination; (3) requiring that sellers or landlords of property constructed before 1978  conduct an inspection of any properties offered for rent or sale – it not being enough to check off a box saying, “I just didn’t know…” or to have such an inspection record from a previous owner documenting that an inspection was indeed  conducted since 1978; (4) giving prospective buyers more than ten days to have such an inspection conducted before finalizing a sale. 14 would seem more reasonable, and 21 might be better.

The kind of contamination we’re discussing here isn’t an “inconvenience,” or some “tree hugger’s burst of imagination,” it’s a cause of damage to the brain and nervous system, behavioral problems, anemia, liver and kidney damage, hearing loss, hyperactivity, developmental delays, and in extreme cases, death in children. [EPA]  Additionally, in adults it can also cause abdominal pain, fatigue, headaches and irritability, loss of appetite, muscular weakness, and memory loss. [CDC]

There’s really no level of lead contamination that is acceptable, and there should be no question that in some instances caveat emptor isn’t really an appropriate civic response to the problem.

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