Lead Paint Trial Opens in R.I.; Dangers of Lead Exposure Debated

November 7, 2005

A lawyer for a former lead paint manufacturer, cross-examining a state expert witness, questioned the connection between a child’s exposure to lead and the risk of reduced intelligence and behavioral problems.

Don Scott, who represents NL Industries Inc., one of four defendants in the state’s lawsuit against former lead paint and pigment manufacturers, presented research that he said showed an unclear relationship between a developing child’s blood lead levels and measures of intelligence and hyperactivity.

But Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and widely published specialist on childhood lead poisoning, said he was confident that lead can make a child less intelligent and increase the risk of Attention Deficit Disorder.

“The consensus is that exposure of a child to even low levels of lead causes loss of IQ,” said Landrigan, testifying for the second consecutive day.

The state says the presence of lead-based paint in buildings and homes creates an expensive and dangerous public nuisance that has poisoned tens of thousands of children and potentially contaminated 50 percent of homes in Rhode Island. The Attorney General’s Office wants to hold the companies accountable for cleaning up the problem.

Lawyers for the companies say the lawsuit is misdirected and that properly maintaining a home or building can reduce the risk of childhood lead poisoning.

The other defendants are Sherwin-Williams Co., Atlantic Richfield Co., and Millennium Holdings LLC.

Landrigan acknowledged under cross-examination that childhood lead poisoning has plummeted in Rhode Island and around the country as lead has been removed from gasoline and other industrial sources. Lead paint was banned for residential use nationwide in 1978.

“The same decline that’s occurred in the other 49 states has occurred here,” said Landrigan, a professor at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He called the reduction “one of the great triumphs of public health in the 20th century.”

Scott quizzed Landrigan about a book he co-wrote in which he said parents can take steps to protect their children from lead poisoning. Landrigan said those steps represent a quick fix, but that the best strategy is removing all lead paint from an older home.

Landrigan has testified that lead paint was the main source of lead exposure in Rhode Island. But Michael Nilan, a lawyer for Millennium Holdings, asked him about other possible lead sources, citing a 2003 report from the Providence Water Supply Board that said lead in drinking water makes up between 10 to 20 percent of the total lead exposure in a year.

Last Wednesday, lawyers for paint companies said that Rhode Island has exaggerated the problems caused by lead-based paint and wrongly targeted the companies for what the state calls a “public nuisance.”

Mickey Pohl, an attorney for Sherwin-Williams Co., called the state’s case “unwarranted,” “unfair” and “unwise.” as opening statements concluded in Rhode Island’s lawsuit against four former manufacturers of lead paint and pigment.

Lawyers for the state said in their opening statements last Tuesday that tens of thousands of children in the state had suffered lead poisoning in the last decade and that hundreds of thousands of homes in Rhode Island are potentially contaminated with lead.

But Pohl disputed those claims, saying, ‘”There are not hundreds of thousands of properties out there that need to be addressed by a statewide declaration of a public nuisance.”

The federal government banned the use of lead paint for residential use in 1978, but the substance still exists in properties around the state, lawyers said.

Michael Nilan, a lawyer for Millennium Holdings, urged jurors to find in favor of the defendants, saying the average blood-lead level for children in Rhode Island is at its lowest level in history and that lead exposure comes from multiple sources, not just paint.

Of the tens of thousands of Rhode Island children screened for lead poisoning last year, the overwhelming majority did not have elevated blood lead levels, Nilan said.

Defense lawyers say routine building maintenance can minimize the risk of lead poisoning.

“The Department of Health knows where the worst properties are,” Nilan said, adding the state needs better enforcement of its lead paint laws to reduce the lead poisoning risk.

Pohl urged jurors to conduct a “calm, thorough, reasoned inquiry” and said the evidence was more complicated than described by the state.

Rhode Island sued lead-paint manufacturers in 1999 under then-Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse. But the state’s efforts to hold the companies accountable stalled three years later as the case ended with a hung jury after seven weeks of testimony and four days of deliberations.

Children who eat or breathe flaking paint or dust could suffer brain damage, behaviorial disorders and even death, studies have shown.

The state is trying to show that the presence of lead paint in buildings and homes has created a public nuisance in Rhode Island and burdened parents, landlords and taxpayers. It says the lead paint industry should be held financially responsible for helping pay for the problem.

Was this article valuable?

Here are more articles you may enjoy.