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Rhode Island Sues Lead Paint Makers

Air Date: Week of

Rhode Island has become the first state to sue the lead paint industry. Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse says paint manufacturers continued to sell and promote lead paint even though they knew it was toxic. He wants the companies to pay for treating lead-poisoned children and removing lead from homes. Living On Earth’s Anna Solomon-Greenbaum reports.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Suits against the tobacco and gun industries have become a trend in litigation, with governmental bodies suing private industries for the costs of damage to the public good. Now, Rhode Island has become the first state to launch such a battle with the makers of lead paint. Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse is suing paint manufacturers and the Lead Industries Association for marketing and promoting lead paint in the face of evidence that it was toxic. And Mr. Whitehouse says the industry should be held accountable. Living on Earth's Anna Solomon-Greenbaum has our story.

(Music in the background)

COLOGNE: Help me give Nathan his medicine.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Elizabeth Cologne gets her two youngest sons ready for the day in their turn-of-the-century farm house on Providence's Smith Hill. With its flower boxes and Halloween decorations, the house looks perfectly safe. But when Elizabeth's son Sammy was 12 months old, a routine screening found he had lead in his blood—more than three times the level considered safe.

COLOGNE: When they first told us, it was like: Whoa, didn't they take lead out of gasoline a long time ago, and isn't there no more lead in paint?

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: When his blood lead climbed even higher, Sammy was hospitalized, and an inspection confirmed that lead paint dust eroding from their windows and doors was to blame.

COLOGNE: You know, the floors look clean. We swept and mopped and did everything we had to do. But every time someone would either open a door or close a window, or you turn a ceiling fan on, all that dust was released back into the air. Sammy was breathing it in, and we had no idea.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The Colognes aren't alone. One in five children entering kindergarten in Rhode Island has high blood lead levels. One in four in urban areas. Most of Rhode Island's homes were built before lead paint was banned in the U.S. in 1978. So, many residents are still at risk. Rhode Island has had to pay for treatment and special education for children with lead poisoning. They've also provided lead screenings for kids, and subsidized loans to make homes lead-safe. Families like the Colognes have spent thousands of dollars each on renovations.


SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Outside the Jenks Junior High School in Pawtucket, attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse told reporters it's time for the companies that made lead paint to pay for the damage.

WHITEHOUSE: When you make a mess, you have to clean it up. And this mess was no accident. The lead that is in our homes is there by design, the result of intentional, informed decisions by the lead pigment industry. The industry knew that lead paint was toxic. They promoted its use, and they profited from its use. And the lead is still out there now.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: The federal government says about 64 million U.S. homes are contaminated with high lead paint, and that nearly 900,000 children under five have elevated blood lead. Lead poisoning can cause brain and nerve damage, hearing loss, and even comas, seizures, and death. But the former manufacturers of lead paint say they're not responsible for these problems. Tim Hardy is a lawyer for NL Industries, once known as the National Lead Company.

HARDY: We're talking about a product that has not been marketed for decades. We're talking about a product which poses a risk to children only if it's not maintained. There's no indication in the historical record that these companies ever hid any information from public health authorities.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: In fact, Mr. Hardy says, the lead paint manufacturers funded research on the hazards of lead.

HARDY: As new research revealed that other uses of lead might in fact be causing risk, these companies worked with public health authorities to adjust their use of lead, and to assure protection of their customers.

RYAN: To say that the lead industry helped document the dangers of lead poisoning is like giving the tobacco industry credit for linking lung cancer and cigarette smoking.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Don Ryan is the executive director of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning in Washington, DC.

RYAN: The record is quite clear that over decade after decade, the purpose of the lead industry's research was to obscure the evidence and to confuse the debate.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: One thing the parties do agree on: it will take a long time to sort out the legal issues.

BOGUS: It's a big deal, because the lead paint problem is a huge public safety problem.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: Carl Bogus is an expert on product liability at Roger Williams University Law School. He says he expects the companies to argue that what they may or may not have done years ago is no longer an issue, because too much time has passed since they stopped making lead paint. Whatever the merits of the lawsuit, Professor Bogus says other states are likely to follow Rhode Island's lead.

BOGUS: It may be the harbinger of 50 such lawsuits against lead paint manufacturers and lead paint associations.

SOLOMON-GREENBAUM: For Living on Earth, I'm Anna Solomon-Greenbaum in Providence.



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