Lead paint poisons family's first-home happiness $2 million lawsuit targets sellers, bank

March 10, 1991|By Eileen Canzian | Eileen Canzian,Sun Staff Correspondent

LEONARDTOWN -- Like most couples buying their first home, Christian and Melissa Solms envisioned their white frame house on Washington Street as a haven for their family. Instead, it poisoned their daughter and left her with possible brain damage.

The terrifying discovery that dust from lead-based paint had attacked little Carolina's nervous system came four months after they moved in. Other numbing revelations followed.

The county health department said the family would have to move out until workers were hired to remove the paint. Then contractors reported that making the sprawling six-bedroom house safe would cost at least $50,000, probably more. The Solmses didn't have it.

Two years after leaving their home on Washington Street for a rental unit nearby, Mr. and Mrs. Solms will be in St. Mary's County Circuit Court next month pressing their lawsuit against everyone involved in the sale, including Cardinal James A. Hickey, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington. They argue that they should have been warned of the dangerous paint in the house, once a convent, before they bought it from the church.

"We were so happy in that house, and then all of a sudden we were confronted with this horror," Mrs. Solms said recently. "As first-time homebuyers, I don't think that we were the ones who were supposed to know about this."

The case -- which could have ramifications for home buyers, sellers, real estate agents and lenders throughout the state -- comes at a time when there is new evidence that lead-based paint is a serious problem not only in crumbling, inner-city tenements, but also in many middle-class homes.

In its first nationwide assessment of the problem, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported in December that 74 percent of U.S. homes built before 1980 contain toxic lead-based paint somewhere on the interior, the exterior, or both. The paint was banned for most uses in the United States in 1977, so houses and apartments built before then are most at risk.

The department's conclusions about the number of homes where the paint poses a significant hazard were particularly alarming. The agency found that one in four housing units built before 1980 and occupied by young children contains lead-based paint that is chipping or causing the high dust levels associated with lead poisoning. Nearly 40 percent of these hazardous dwellings are occupied by homeowners earning more than $30,000 a year.

While many people may still associate lead poisoning with chips of paint eaten by children in dilapidated buildings, researchers have concluded that dust from the aging paint is a far more common danger. The opening and closing of old windows, even in homes otherwise in good repair, can free dust from layers of paint applied years before.

The dust is particularly dangerous for young children because they can be harmed by very small amounts of lead and because they are more likely than adults to ingest it; dust that lands on a toddler's hands or toys probably will wind up in his mouth.

Researchers also have found that lead can cause learning disabilities and other neurological damage in amounts far smaller than once were considered a danger.

Over the past two decades, the federal government has steadily lowered its standard for the amount of lead in a child's blood that should trigger concern. The Centers for Disease Control currently use the figure of 25 micrograms per deciliter of blood, but that is expected to be revised further downward, to 15 micrograms or lower, before the end of this year.

State lead poisoning prevention officials say it is likely that thousands of children in Maryland have blood levels warranting concern and their parents do not know it. Pediatricians in Maryland are not required to screen for lead. Doctors treating children from low-income families routinely order the tests, but many other pediatricians don't.

Because the neurological damage caused by lead poisoning cannot be reversed, many experts on the problem say they wouldn't consider moving into a home without determining whether it contained lead paint and, if so, whether removal or other treatment was warranted. But only one state, Massachusetts, has passed legislation expressly requiring that potential buyers of housing be warned that it may contain lead paint and that such paint can be harmful to children.

Mr. and Mrs. Solms will attempt through their lawyers to prove there was nonetheless an obligation under various Maryland laws for professionals involved in selling the house to warn of its danger. Their argument rests largely on a claim that people who make a living through real estate sales had to have known that the 60-year-old house was infested with lead paint.

They have cited, in part, a Maryland real estate rule requiring sales agents to disclose to potential buyers any "material fact" about a property.

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