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Lead Paint and Babies

Q. My husband and I have lived in a rent-stabilized apartment for six years. Every year we sign a lead paint disclosure form stating that the apartment may or may not contain lead paint. Since we had no children, we never gave it any thought. Now that I am pregnant, I am not sure how to proceed. How do we find out if there is lead paint? And, if we find lead, would we have to move out? Or would our landlady have to repaint the apartment? If she repaints, would she raise our rent?

A. Exposure to lead can cause serious and irreversible health problems for young children. Although lead contamination in the Flint, Mich., water supply has dominated the news in recent months, peeling or chipping lead paint is by far the most common source of exposure for children in the United States. Toddlers face the greatest risk. “They’re exploring their environment and they’re putting everything in their mouths,” said Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and dean for global health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Apartments built before 1960 are presumed by New York City to have lead paint (and apartments built as late as 1978 may have it). But the mere presence of lead paint does not necessarily pose an immediate health risk for your baby. If the paint is intact, with no signs of peeling, flaking or chipping, then leave it alone, as it is unlikely a child could ingest it. Look at your walls. Pay close attention to windows and door frames for signs of wear or chipping paint, as those are usually the culprits.

You could call 311 to request an inspection. City rules require landlords to inspect rental apartments annually if children under 6 live there. If any areas need to be repainted, demand that your landlady hire a professional painter certified in lead paint remediation. You should vacate the premises until the work is complete to avoid breathing in any lead dust. Your landlady cannot raise your rent for remediating lead paint, as this is her responsibility, according to David A. Kaminsky, a Manhattan real estate lawyer.

Be aware of another potential hazard: decorating the nursery. Many expectant parents paint the baby’s room before the birth. “It’s a very natural human impulse to make the nursery beautiful,” Dr. Landrigan said. Normally, lead paint does not pose a health hazard to a pregnant woman. However, a pregnant mother can expose a baby to lead if she breathes in dust while doing prep work like scraping and sanding before painting, according to Dr. Landrigan. So, if you do redecorate, hire a professional painter and clear out until the job is done.

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