Providence's Alternative Source!

RI squares off against lead paint manufacturers


Rhode Island is set to battle the lead paint industry, starting Wednesday, September 4, in a court case that has states, cities, and school districts around the country waiting in the wings to follow suit. Since the 1998 tobacco settlement, attorneys general increasingly are taking the lead in attacking corporate malfeasance, and Attorney General Sheldon Whitehouse is the latest. "We are basically charting new procedural ground here," says Whitehouse, a candidate for governor.

Like the tobacco suits, Rhode Island's case is built on the idea that paint manufacturers knew their product was harmful -- "and they marketed it anyway," Whitehouse says. But unlike tobacco, the state is out to prove that lead paint is a public nuisance the state's citizens should not have to bear.

The question, Whitehouse says, is, "Are enough kids hurt, are they hurt badly enough, and are they being hurt by lead paint? I think we can answer that question very, very clearly and resoundingly yes."

The state filed the suit in 1999, and after three years of wrangling with industry lawyers, Superior Court Judge Michael Silverstein has approved the case for trial. If the state clears the public-nuisance legal hurdle -- the first trial phase, which could last at least eight weeks -- the matter could proceed to a second phase to determine who is responsible for the nuisance.

Although lead paint was banned nationwide in 1978, more than 80 percent of local buildings were built before then, and Rhode Island is considered the nation's lead paint capital. The state says the paint industry should help pay for the resulting health woes, which include lower IQ, mental retardation, learning difficulties, behavioral problems, stunted growth, and hearing loss

The industry, on the other hand, says the fault lies with landlords and homeowners.

"I grew up in a home that had lead paint," says lawyer John Tarantino, who represents Atlantic Richfield. "Unfortunately . . . there are landlords or property owners who simply don't care about upkeep, or they don't care about their tenants. We need to target those bad properties . . . and make sure our law enforcement officials go after owners who don't have their properties in safe condition."

The paint industry's position was somewhat inadvertently bolstered by a recent Brown University study. Researchers found that in the thousands of cases where children have troubling blood-lead levels, just a small number of landlords were responsible for housing these children.

But ask Liz Colon, whose young son, Sammy, was hospitalized in 1996 for an alarming blood-lead level, and she'll tell you the fault should be shared by many. Sitting in her sunny Smith Hill kitchen, as Sammy shyly talks about the routine blood tests and treatments he underwent, Colon explains her view of the upcoming case: "We have established that we have a problem Rhode Island. And everyone is now sitting at the table to figure out how to fix it. Everybody except the manufacturers. All we want them to do is to sit at that table."

Issue Date: August 30 - September 5, 2002