Watch Out for Health Hazards in Your Rental Apartment

Not all landlords are aware of or responsive to every possible problem in their rental units. Tenants should be aware of and raise issues of concern, for example around lead dust, asbestos, mold, radon, and carbon monoxide.

By , J.D., University of Washington School of Law

State and federal laws require landlords to offer fit and habitable housing, a duty that is not limited to providing decent heating, hot water, and the like. Environmental health hazards posed by lead paint dust, asbestos fibers, mold, and radon have been on legislators' radar.

When residential landlords know of the presence of these problems on their properties, they must at a minimum alert tenants and monitor the situation, and in some cases, remove the problem.

Lead Paint Dust and Corroded Lead Pipes in Rentals

Exposure to lead paint dust and lead that has leached from pipes will result in serious health problems, especially in children. Landlords who knew about the presence of a lead hazard but did nothing to remedy it have been found liable in huge jury awards and settlements. As far back as 1996, a federal law (the Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act, or "Title X [Ten]") has required landlords to:

  • disclose to potential tenants any known lead problems, and give them the federally required disclosure statement
  • give tenants the booklet, "Protect Your Family From Lead in Your Home," and
  • provide information when specified renovations disturb lead paint.

Since the passage of the federal law, almost all states have enacted legislation of their own, all of which supplement the federal requirements. If you want to read your state's rules, go to the National Conference of State Legislatures website and search for "state lead laws."

Properties Exempt From Federal Lead Regulations

Federal rules concerning lead disclosures do not apply in these situations:

  • housing for which a construction permit was obtained (or on which construction was started) after January 1, 1978
  • housing certified as lead-free by a certified inspector
  • lofts, efficiencies, studios, and other "Zero bedroom" units
  • short-term rentals of 100 days or less
  • single rooms rented in a residential home, and
  • housing designed for persons with disabilities, and retirement communities, unless a child under the age of six is present or will live there.

State laws may, however, step in and require compliance in situations where federal law would not.

Airborne Asbestos Fibers in Rentals

People who come into contact with air-borne asbestos have abnormal rates of cancer and other lung diseases. In 1995, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued regulations requiring that, when undertaking renovations, landlords take steps to minimize exposure and, if necessary, encapsulate or remove deteriorating asbestos, for the benefit of both their employees and their tenants. These regulations extend even to materials that are presumed to contain asbestos.

OSHA requirements apply to custodial as well as renovation work. The rules require the property owner to give workers protective gear and clothing, and to segregate debris and dust.

Once a residential landlord who is planning on a renovation or repair learns of the presence of airborne (also known as "friable") asbestos, the common law duty to warn tenants kicks in. In a nutshell, the landlord must at least warn tenants of a dangerous condition, and deal with it if possible.

In practice, this means that when landlords or their employees or contractors disturb friable asbestos in common areas, they must warn tenants to stay away and dispose of the asbestos as required by law. When the asbestos is in a tenant's living space, most of the time the material should be removed while the tenant is not on the premises.

Mold Problems in Rentals

Mold is the newest, most controversial of environmental hazards. Scientists and doctors disagree mightily about which molds are harmful to health and in what concentrations. Many molds (like the ones in your favorite blue cheese) are entirely harmless; and common ones (like the black stuff on the shower wall) are unsightly but not dangerous. On the other hand, some people are susceptible to the toxins produced by certain molds, and for these people, the health effects are quite nasty.

Unlike lead and asbestos, mold is not the subject of any federal law or remediation scheme, and only a few states (and some cities) have passed laws requiring landlords to take care of mold. For all landlords, however, the duty to remedy a significant mold problem falls within the landlord's duty to repair the property, a responsibility that all landlords share. This means stopping leaks that have led to the growth of mold; and replacing ruined walls, floors, draperies, and so on.

When landlords fail to take steps to remove a mold problem and repair the damage it has caused, tenants might be able to use their rights to use "repair and deduct," or to withhold the rent, or even to move out.

Radon Problems in Rentals

Millions of U.S. homes are said to have unacceptably high levels of radon—a naturally occurring radioactive gas that's associated with lung cancer. Radon problems occur most frequently in areas where rocky soil is relatively rich in uranium and in climates where people keep their windows tightly shut to maintain heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer.

No area is immune, however—according to the EPA, high levels of radon have been detected in every state (see the EPA Map of Radon Zones for details). If you smoke and your house has high radon levels, your risk of developing lung cancer is especially high. Yet only a few states have explicit laws regarding landlord radon disclosures or tenant education, such as Florida (Fla. Stat. Ann. §404.056) and Illinois (under the Illinois Radon Awareness Act, 420 Ill. Comp. Stat. § § 46/15. 46/25).

Start by investigating whether there's a potential or actual problem. City planning departments, insurance brokers (who may have dealt with radon-related claims), architects familiar with the local geology, environmental engineers, and informed neighbors may be able to tell you whether radon is a common local concern. In addition, the radon section of the EPA's website offers detailed information, such as A Citizen' Guide to Radon, and lists of resources such as radon test kits. If you decide to test for radon, the kit you use should say "Meets EPA Requirements."

Testing for radon takes at least three days, and sometimes months. Your state radon contact can provide more information, including (relevant if you want to hire a professional radon contractor), requirements for radon measurement and certification requirements. Also, see the EPA Consumer's Guide to Radon Reduction for advice on reducing radon in your home (and make sure your landlord is aware of this publication). The EPA's radon hotline, 800-SOSRADON (800-767-7236), lets you call with specific radon questions.

If you perform a radon test on your own, send the landlord a certified letter with a copy of the report, and ask the landlord for help resolving the problem.

If radon is a major problem where you live, keeping it out of your rental is the landlord's responsibility. That's because a significant radon presence renders a rental "uninhabitable." If a certified radon tester concludes that levels are too high, that's all you need to demand that the landlord take prompt steps to remedy the problem. See Tenant Options if Your Landlord Won't Make Major Repairs for advice.

The remedy should begin with good ventilation to disperse the gas. Opening windows and running fans are useful temporary measures. An important long-term solution, however, is keeping radon out by sealing cracks and other openings in the foundation. Another remedial method is soil suction—sucking the radon out of the soil before it enters the foundation or basement and venting it into the air above the roof through a pipe.

Keep your landlord informed of your concerns, referring him or her to appropriate EPA resources for more information. Your landlord might be willing to pay for a radon test kit or professional testing. Here's a sample letter to a landlord, for use as a model. If you live in an apartment building, your most effective strategy is likely to join with other tenants in expressing your concerns.

Carbon Monoxide Problems in Rentals

Carbon monoxide (CO) is a lethal gas with no color or odor, a byproduct of fuel (gas, oil, wood, and so on) combustion. When inhaled, CO enters the bloodstream and replaces oxygen. Low levels can cause mild nausea or headaches; high concentrations can bring on unconsciousness, brain damage, and death.

Common home appliances, such as gas dryers and fireplaces all produce CO. If they're not vented properly, CO can build up within your rental unit and poison the occupants. Other causes of CO poisoning include using a gas oven to heat your home or a charcoal gas grill to cook indoors. In tight, "energy-efficient" apartments, indoor accumulations of CO are especially dangerous.

To educate yourself about this issue, see the EPA publication Protect Your Family and Yourself from Carbon Monoxide Poisoning for details on CO poisoning, and check the EPA website section on carbon monoxide.

As part of the landlord's responsibility to provide habitable premises, the landlord should properly maintain appliances, chimneys, and other parts of your home.

Even the most diligent landlord might, however, miss a problem, such as a blocked chimney caused by a bird's nest. That's why some states, such as California (Health & Safety Code § 17926), require landlords or all homeowners to install carbon monoxide detectors. Even if your state or city doesn't require this, ask your landlord to provide a CO detector or purchase your own.

More Information on Dealing With Environmental Hazards in a Rental

For further discussion of environmental health hazards in rental properties, see Nolo's book Every Tenant's Legal Guide (or California Tenants' Rights, if you rent property in California). Landlords should consult Every Landlord's Legal Guide (or The California Landlord's Law Book: Rights and Responsibilities).

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