Campaign urges landlords to minimize lead exposure

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(Host) The Vermont Department of Health has begun a campaign to get landlords to comply with a law requiring them to take steps to minimize lead exposure in rental units.

The department has begun sending letters warning rental property owners of stiff fines.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports:

(Zind) Well over half of the dwellings in Vermont date back to a time when it was common to use paint containing lead. It’s long been known that chips and dust from aging lead paint are a health hazard especially for very young children.

So ten years ago, a law was passed requiring Vermont landlords to attend a training course and take steps to minimize lead exposure in their rental properties through what are called essential maintenance practices or EMPs. To document that they’ve done these things, they’re supposed to file a yearly affidavit with the state.

The Vermont Department of Health says that over the years, the number of landlords filing the necessary paperwork has declined. Only about 20 percent are documenting that they’ve met the requirements of the lead law.

Now the state has begun sending out registered letters to some landlords warning of action by the attorney general and a possible ten thousand dollar fine if they don’t comply with the law.

Sharon Moffatt is Acting Commissioner of the Department of Health. Moffatt says initially the state is targeting owners of rental properties in communities where tests show children are exposed to higher than normal levels of lead – beginning with Bellows Falls.

(Moffatt) “They continue to be one of the highest childhood lead poisoning rates in the state overall. In addition, we’ll be working with Richford and Proctor and Poultney. That’s where we’re aiming our energy right now is to look at the communities where we have the highest reporting of childhood lead.”

(Zind) Every year blood tests show about 300 Vermont children suffer from unsafe levels of lead.

The state doesn’t inspect rental properties to pinpoint problems with lead paint. It counts on the landlords to voluntarily comply with the abatement requirements. Moffatt says that’s why filing the necessary paperwork is important part of documenting that they’ve done what required.

(Moffatt) “At the end of the day, what we’re really wanting to do is make sure that children aren’t exposed to lead.”

(Zind) Moffatt says no landlord has ever been fined for failing to comply with the lead abatement requirements.

The Vermont Apartment Owners Association which represents landlords statewide says it welcomes the letters, but it disputes the 20 percent compliance rate the state is quoting.

.Stuart Bennett is head of the association. Bennett says dealing with lead is a major issue for rental property owners.

(Bennett) “We talk with landlords all week long and we know that to a landlord they are familiar with their obligations for essential maintenance practices, now whether they miss an affidavit annually may be, but the reality is that the awareness in general and the performance of EMPs is a whole lot higher than people appreciate.”

(Zind) Bennett says the health departments own figures show lead poisoning in Vermont children declined from fifteen percent to only three percent in a ten year period beginning in 1994. He says that’s due, in part, to the cooperation of landlords in reducing lead exposure in rental properties.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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