The One Piece of Massachusetts History We Want to Lose: Lead Paint

Although the current mandate calls for stripping dangerous levels of lead from houses with young children, residences that have been deemed lead-safe don’t necessarily stay that way forever. Kathleen O'Keefe plays by a window in her parents Belmont apartment who had a difficult time finding a place to live due to lead paint testing laws. 10/4/95 Jodi Hilton / The Boston Globe

Boston’s a city famous for its historic charm. But lurking in the old buildings is lead—thanks to the use of lead paint, once touted as the best and longest-lasting paint for residences. It was banned from home use in 1978, but many residential buildings and homes in Massachusetts predate the mandate.

Although the current mandate calls for stripping dangerous levels of lead from houses with young children, residences that have been deemed lead-safe don’t necessarily stay that way forever. Lead paint can chip and peel with age, mold, and weather. If the lead reaches easily accessible surfaces, a house is no longer lead safe.

Advertisement: spoke with local researchers who estimate that 50 to 80 percent of Boston housing still contains lead.

“The thing about lead is that there is no safe level. Period,’’ said Leon Bethune, the Director of Environmental Health at the Boston Public Health Commission. “The long term effects are really crazy. Because it has neurological effects, the lead toxicity in the blood can cause mental retardation.’’

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, severe lead exposure in children can cause coma, convulsions, and death. Low levels of exposure can affect the central nervous system, kidneys, and hematopoietic system. Even blood lead levels that don’t cause distinctive symptoms have been associated with decreased intelligence and impaired neurobehavioral development. As research advances, low-level exposure has become a bigger concern.

“When I was in medical school in the ‘60s and ‘70s, we only diagnosed lead poisoning when a child was in a coma or dying,’’ said Dr. Sean Palfrey, a Clinical Professor of Pediatrics and Public Health at Boston University and a pediatrician at Boston Medical Center. “Then we realized there was a lot more to it than we thought, at which point we started universal screening.’’


The most recent data available from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health compares the number of children six to 72 months old (according to the 2010 census) to the number of children screened for lead poisoning between 2011 and 2012.

State health officials used these findings to create an incidence rate. Incidence looks at the number of children 6 to 72 months of age with confirmed blood levels greater than 20 mcg/dL, which is classified as an elevated blood lead level. Greater than 25 mcg/dL qualifies as lead poisoning.

When talking about child lead poisoning, the term “incidence rate’’ reflects the number of newly identified children with confirmed blood levels of 20 mcg/dL per 1000 children screened between 2011 and 2012. Public health officials reviewed more than 350 Massachusetts cities, and 43 had incidence rates higher than 0. Below are the cities with the highest incidence rates:

1.Merrimac (8.1)

2.Rockport (7.8)

3.Palmer (5.8)

4.Middleton (5.7)

5.Harwich (5.0)

6.Georgetown (4.3)

7.Wareham (3.7)

8.North Reading (2.4)

9.Greenfield (2.2)

10.Abington (1.7)

Boston was considerably lower on the list, coming in 36th on the list for incidence at a rate of 0.5. Out of 23,000 children in the 6-72-month range screened that year, 12 were poisoned by lead.

Stewart Thompson, Crew Supervisor for Alpine Environmental Inc, scrapes old lead paint from the door frame of an historic Lexington home being de-leaded in 2002.


Richard O’Brien is the Assistant Director with the Boston Home Center, and he finds that Boston’s Lead Safe Program leads the way because of how the housing and health departments work together. A pediatrician alerts the Boston Public Health Commission when a child has a high blood lead level. Then they follow up with Lead Safe Boston.

O’Brien says the incidence rate of child lead poisoning in Boston has decreased dramatically, but, that doesn’t mean high-lead levels have been eradicated. O’Brien sees people come through Lead Safe Boston to address this issue every day. Experts say this largely due to the fact that the law has loopholes for landlords.

“Under the state lead law, landlords are liable to discover and remove dangerous levels of lead in any house where a child under the age of six resides,’’ said Jeffrey Feuer, a landlord and tenant lawyer at Goldstein and Feuer in Cambridge.

However, the landlords are not required to make the properties lead-free. They’re only required to remove dangerous levels of lead from surfaces easily accessible to children, such as windowsills and door frames.

The 1668 historic Lexington home was divided into hazardous and non-hazardous zones in February 2002 while de-leading was underway.

This burden of de-leading often causes landlords to simply bar families from moving in to possibly lead-exposed apartments.

“Apartments are often described as ‘no children’ which violates the anti-discrimination law,’’ said Christopher Saccardi, a landlord and tenant lawyer in Somerville. “I get a lot of calls from families that keep getting denied from apartments.’’


Saccardi said that this is because de-leading can be a potentially huge expense that landlords are reluctant to deal with. attempted to speak to multiple landlords about the issue, but these phone calls resulted in hang-ups and an unwillingness to talk. Landlords have a reason to be nervous. If children become sick from lead exposure, these landlords can be held liable.

Feuer says that if landlords do not remove dangerous levels of lead in a house where the child is under the age of six, the repercussions would be severe.

“If they don’t do that and a child gets lead poisoned, and the parents or the lawyer for the child can prove that the lead came from the house, then you can sue the landlord and the landlord can be held strictly liable for the child’s injuries,’’ he said.

Landlords who disregard de-leading regulations can also be charged with negligence when older children live in their buildings.

“If a child is over the age of six, and there is lead in the property, and the landlord knows that there is lead there, and they know there is some danger to an older child, and the child gets poisoned, then you may be able to sue the landlord for negligence,’’ Feuer said.

Clearly there are many measures in place to protect against lead poisoning. But with the risks of exposure so high, experts say the laws around de-leading homes need to be stronger..

How old is the house you’re living in? Are you sure it’s lead-safe?



This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on