Former Health Official Cross-Examined in R.I. Lead Paint Trial

November 29, 2005

The former director of the Rhode Island Department of Health acknowledged Monday as she was cross-examined in the state’s lawsuit against former lead paint manufacturers that the department’s own Web site says routine maintenance and house cleaning can help prevent harmful lead exposure.

But Patricia Nolan, questioned for hours by defense lawyers, said any cleaning must be done properly, carefully and consistently.

The state alleges that the presence of lead-based paint in homes and buildings creates a public nuisance and has sued former makers of lead paint and pigment to force them to help clean up the problem. The companies say they are being unfairly targeted and argue that routine maintenance by landlords and homeowners can reduce the risk of lead poisoning.

John Tarantino, a lawyer representing Atlantic Richfield Co., showed Nolan that the health department’s Web site gives parents tips for protecting their children from lead poisoning, advises against the complete removal of lead-based paint from homes and says living in an older house does not necessarily place a family at risk.

The Web site says routine maintenance of painted surfaces can minimize the likelihood that a child will be poisoned and that not all homes in Rhode Island contain dangerous levels of lead. It also offers suggestions for how to clean lead dust in homes and prevent childhood poisoning.

The state says tens of thousands of Rhode Island children have suffered lead poisoning in the last decade and that hundreds of thousands of homes here may be contaminated.

Besides Atlantic Richfield, the defendants are Sherwin-Williams Co., NL Industries, Inc. and Millennium Holdings LLC.

Tarantino on Monday cited a 2005 health department report that says the proportion of new cases of childhood lead poisoning has declined dramatically in the last decade.

Though the health department says 1,167 children were poisoned for the first time last year, Tarantino challenged the accuracy of that number because he said it likely includes children who were identified by a screening test that is considered unreliable as a diagnostic tool.

In testifying for the state two weeks ago, Nolan described widespread harm to families and communities that can result from lead exposure, saying poisoned children may require special education and that as many as 250,000 homes in Rhode Island could contain lead-based paint.

But Tarantino challenged her testimony, asking if there were studies that could support her claims.

Lead-based paint was banned for residential use nationwide in 1978, but it is still present in many older homes and buildings.

Young children who eat or breathe flaking lead paint chips or dust can suffer brain damage, behavioral disorders and, in extreme cases, death.

The state sued former lead paint manufacturers in 1999, but that case ended in a mistrial in 2002.

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