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Lead Paint Poisoning
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Lead Paint Lawsuit Opens In R.I.

Sep 4, 2002 | AP Lead paint still sickens children every day, nearly a quarter of a century after it was banned, state lawyers told a jury Wednesday at the start of a landmark trial against eight former manufacturers.

The lawsuit brought by Rhode Island marks the first attempt by a state to hold makers of lead paint accountable for decades of lead poisoning in youngsters. A verdict against the companies ultimately could cost them millions and lead to more lawsuits.

Leonard Decof, a private attorney hired to represent Rhode Island, told the jury the companies created a public health threat. "This case is about the right of the public to be free from harm," Decof said.

John Tarantino, lead attorney for the eight companies, acknowledged that lead paint has harmed children. But he told the six-member jury the problem is confined to deteriorated, older housing and can be prevented through proper upkeep and better enforcement of state laws.

"The problem is not the presence of lead paint," Tarantino said. "It's poorly maintained properties, bad maintenance."

A prosecution witness testifed Wednesday that removing lead paint is the only sure solution. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York, has studied child lead poisoning for several decades.

"The only ultimate way to prevent children from getting lead poisoning is to take lead paint away," said Landrigan, who is scheduled to be cross-examined Thursday.

Lead paint was banned in 1978, after studies showed it can cause brain damage and even death in youngsters who eat or inhale paint chips or dust.

The paint remains on about 331,000 properties in Rhode Island, according to state records. The properties include private homes, hospitals, schools, churches and other public buildings.

The jury will decide whether lead paint is a public nuisance. If the state wins that round, the next phase will determine whether the companies must pay damages. State officials have not said how much they would seek.

The companies contend the lead paint in most homes is covered under several coats and is not a threat.

But Decof told jurors that nearly 35,000 Rhode Island children have been documented with elevated blood lead levels since 1993, and that seven children are being poisoned every day on average.

The problem is worse than average in Rhode Island, which has a higher percentage of older buildings than many states.

A state health department study showed 8.1 percent of Rhode Island children under 6 had elevated blood-lead levels in 2001. The most recent national statistics, compiled in 1994, showed 4.4 percent of U.S. children with elevated levels of lead.

The companies named in the lawsuit are American Cyanamid Co.; Atlantic Richfield; ConAgra Grocery Products Co.; Cytec Industries Inc.; DuPont Co.; Millenium Inorganic; NL Industries Inc.; and Sherwin-Williams Co.

Several other states are considering suing, and cities such as San Francisco, Milwaukee and New York City already have done so.

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