Lead Paint Makers Suffer Landmark Defeat in California Lawsuit
Written by James P. Nevin
A state court judge in San Jose, California has ordered lead paint makers to create a $1.1 billion fund to eliminate lead hazards to children in hundreds of thousands of homes in the state.
Previously, the industry had a perfect record defending suits by public agencies who sought money for the removal of flaking lead paint from older homes and apartments. The verdict was a huge victory for 10 California municipalities-including San Francisco, Los Angeles County, and San Diego-who will be able to draw on the fund for home inspections and repairs, if the ruling is upheld.
Santa Clara Superior Court Judge James P. Kleinberg found three companies, Sherwin-Williams Cp., NL Industries, Inc., and ConAgra Grocery Products Co., guilty of creating a public nuisance by manufacturing and selling lead paint long after knowing its dangers. The judge dismissed two claims against defendants ARCO and DuPont, finding insufficient evidence they sold paint for use in California homes.
The ruling requires the companies to deposit $1.1 billion within 60 days of a final judgment with the California Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Branch, which is part of the state health department. Ten cities and counties will have access to the fund to carry out lead inspections, removal and repairs, the amount they are entitled to depending on estimates of homes with potential lead hazards.
Lead paint makers have defended against about 50 other lawsuits by states and municipalities over the last 24 years. The companies have been successful despite evidence that company officials knew decades ago that lead was hazardous, and continued to promote lead paint as healthy. For example, a Sherwin-Williams newsletter from 1900 described lead as a "deadly cumulative poison." But, at the same time a 1924 ad by a company subsidiary boasted "Cousin Susie says her health improved instantly" after her home was covered with lead paint.
Authorities say that lead paint is a public health threat, worst than lead in drinking water or in children's toys. Lead paint was outlawed by the federal government for household use in 1978, due to its health hazards. It is unfortunately still found on the walls of old houses and apartment, where children sometimes ingest it when it chips off walls and turns into dust. Recent research has found that even small amount of lead can be harmful. Federal authorities estimate there are 535,000 children in the US with potentially dangerous levels of lead in their blood. And young children with elevated levels of lead in their blood are at risk of lower IQ, attention disorders and other health problems.
Judge Klienberg's decision acknowledged that lead paint is the primary source of lead poisoning in children. He stated further that "Existing programs at all government levels lack the resources to effectively deal with the problem...The Court is convinced there are thousands of California children...whose lives can be improved, if not saved, through a lead abatement plan."