FAQ: What you need to know about lead in the home

Mother Sara Cornejo was shocked when her daughter, Madeline, was diagnosed with lead poisoning last year. Lead paint was found in Madeline's bedroom.
Mother Sara Cornejo was shocked when her daughter, Madeline, was diagnosed with lead poisoning last year. Lead paint was found in Madeline's bedroom.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC


Series: Harm at Home

Young children in South Los Angeles continue to live in conditions that harm their health and well-being. In the first of two parts, KPCC investigates why the community still suffers most of the cases of childhood lead poisoning in the city and how concerted efforts to eliminate lead's threat to young children are falling short.

Read more in this series and let us know your thoughts on Twitter using the hashtag #IamSouthLA.

Lead paint and other household lead sources are hazards for all occupants of homes and apartments, but especially for children. Here are some tips and resources to help keep your home safe.

1. How can lead affect my health or my family's health?

Lead, which can be ingested or inhaled as a result of exposure to lead-based paint or other sources, can be a danger for everyone, but especially for young children under six whose brains and nervous systems are still developing, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

There are no obvious signs of lead poisoning. Some people may experience abdominal pain and cramping, aggressive behavior, anemia, constipation and difficulty sleeping, for example, according to the National Institutes for Health's MedlinePlus. But these and other symptoms can be seen in other conditions as well.

Later, symptoms such as development delays, learning difficulties, delayed growth, and loss of weight can appear, the Mayo Clinic website notes.

2. How can I find out if there is lead in my home?

Older homes, those built before 1978 when harmful levels of lead in paint were banned, are more likely to hold hazards like chipping paint and paint dust. If you are buying or renting a pre-1978 house or apartment, sellers and landlords are required to disclose the presence of lead-based paint. 

A certified inspector or risk assessor can determine if your home is at risk. You can find qualified inspectors or risk assessors by searching the Environmental Protection Agency site for trained and certified firms.

Lead can also be present in imported cooking pots, toys, jewelry, soil tracked into the home from the outside or in material brought into the home by workers in lead-related industries such as construction and oil refining. The EPA has a home lead poisoning checklist to help you evaluate your home.

More advice is available from the U.S. Housing and Urban Development at 800-RID-LEAD and National Lead Information Center at 800-LEAD-FYI.

3. Can't I get rid of lead-based paint myself?

The Environment Protection Agency advises against this. Expert cleaning and abatement can avoid problems like lead dust from scrapping off paint. Be careful as well when remodeling, repainting, or repairing homes that have lead paint. Experts say it is best to hire EPA or state-approved Lead-Safe certified renovation firms.

4. How can I find out if I am or my children are at risk?

If you suspect you or your children have been exposed to lead, get a blood test from a doctor or clinic. Blood tests are covered by Medicaid and most private insurers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, be aware that blood tests will only show recent lead exposure and any lead that is currently in the system. It will not detect lead that may have been in the system from months or years past.

The CDC says there is no safe level of lead in children. Even low levels in the blood can affect IQ, attention and academic performance, according to the agency, which says the effects of lead exposure can't be reversed.

4. How can I help prevent lead poisoning?

Whether or not you know or suspect that you live in a home exposed to lead, experts advise:

• Keep your home dust-free and wet-wipe floors, surfaces, windows and windowsills regularly.

• Prevent children from putting paint chips and other objects they find on the floor or peel from the wall in their mouths. Wash their hands, toys and bottles frequently.

• Lead can be found in soil, so keep children from playing in dirt. The CDC says use sandboxes instead.

• Take shoes off or wipe them before entering the home.

• Children and women who are pregnant should not be around renovation work in housing built before 1978.

The CDC offers more home-safe tips on its website.

5. What if my landlord won't make repairs to minimize my family's lead exposure?

Tenants can file complaints about repairs with the Los Angeles County Environmental Health division at 888-700-9995. All areas of the county except Long Beach, Pasadena and Vernon are covered.

The California Department of Consumer Affairs advises tenants to ask their landlords for repairs by both calling and writing a letter. If the landlord doesn't respond to repeated requests for repairs, California tenants can pursue any of several remedies:

Repair and deduct: Under this provision, a tenant can deduct up to a month's worth of rent to pay for repair of defects that affect the residents' health and safety. It's an alternative to filing a lawsuit against  landlord.

Rent withholding: Tenants can withhold a portion or all of their rent if their landlords fail to fix serious defects. This option usually deals with needed repairs that are more serious than under "repair and deduct" or the abandonment choices.

Abandonment: When landlords don't fix repairs needed for health and safety, the tenant can move out of a defective unit and isn't obliged to pay future rent. The requirements are similar to the "repair and deduct" and "rent withholding" options.

For all of these remedies, it's best to first talk with an attorney, legal aid organization, or tenants' association since there are risks; a landlord could move to evict a resident who takes action, for example. 


1. Lead informationU.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development at 800-RID-LEAD, National Lead Information Center at 800-LEAD-FYI and Los Angeles County Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program at 800-LA-4-LEAD. For complaints about peeling paint or to request repairs, call LA County Environmental Health at 888-700-9995. Service area includes LA County,  with the exception of Long Beach, Pasadena and Vernon.

2. Tenants RightsCalifornia Department of Consumer Affairs Consumer Information Center. Phone: 800-952-5210 

3. Healthy Homes Collaborative: Runs Lead Safe Work Practice Trainings and has multiple locations around Los Angeles where it runs a "Lead Toy Exchange Program." Phone: 323-221-8320

4. Inner City LawPro bono law firm that specializes in community education and litigation on behalf of tenants living in buildings that pose health threats, including lead. Phone: 213-891-2880

5. Owner Assistance: Los Angeles Housing and Community Investment Department's Lead Hazard Remediation Program offers financial assistance to make homes lead safe. To qualify for the Lead-Based Paint Grant, the property must:

This story has been updated.