Lawyers vs. Lead

Nearly one million American children have dangerously high levels of lead in their blood, mainly from consuming flaking lead paint or breathing in lead dust. A disproportionate number of those affected are people of color. In a 1999 study cited by the Providence Journal, 16 percent of Hispanic and 24 percent of black and Southeast Asian children tested positive for lead, compared to only eight percent for white children.

Kweisi Mfume, president of the NAACP, has warned lead paint companies that the group is considering a class-action suit on behalf of victims.AP Photo/Roberto Borea

Last July, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) President Kweisi Mfume called lead paint poisoning a "silent epidemic" that heavily impacts African-American communities. And he announced that his group is considering filing a class-action lawsuit against paint manufacturers.

The sale of lead in paint was banned in 1978, and its use as a gasoline additive ended in 1986. Because of these bans, the most recent National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey shows that the percentage of U.S. children with "elevated" blood lead levels dropped from 88.2 percent in the late 1970s to just 4.4 percent in the early 1990s. But lead paint lingers on in millions of homes, and it continues to affect children as it ages and peels.

"The good news is that blood lead levels continue to decline in children," says Dr. Eric Sampson of the Centers for Disease Control’s Environmental Laboratory. But, he adds, "Children living in environments
at high risk for lead exposure remain a major public health concern." According to the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, children treated with a lead-lowering drug continued to score lower than normal on behavioral and IQ tests several years after treatment began.

The lead paint industry, which can count among its lobbying alumni Interior Secretary Gale Norton, is bracing itself to survive a legal barrage comparable to that unleashed on cigarette companies. "There is little doubt that the lead industry knew lead paint was poisoning kids for years," says Arthur Bryant, executive director of Trial Lawyers for Public Justice. The NAACP is joining with the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning (both based in Baltimore) to push Congress to enforce lead abatement laws in high-risk cities. Ruth Ann Norton, the Coalition’s president, advocates holding states accountable through litigation or the threat of losing federal funds if they do not uphold the law and conduct blood lead tests on all children who receive Medicaid or medical assistance funding.

"What is compelling about lead paint litigation," Norton says, "is that it impacts innocent victims. Tobacco is much more of a choice. No child chooses to be lead poisoned, and they don’t choose what to inhale."
High-powered Baltimore attorney Peter Angelos, who co-owns the Baltimore Orioles and won billions from the tobacco and asbestos industries in previous suits, has identified lead paint manufacturers as his nexttarget. However, success is not assured. In dismissing a previous lead case in the mid-1990s, Maryland Circuit Court Judge Ellen Heller ruled, "There are no facts which indicated that these Defendants conspired with each other to conceal the knowledge of the dangers of lead paint."