Last chance on lead paint

SUSAN G. DUNN

April 02, 1992|By Susan G. Dunn

WHEN THE federal government outlawed the widespread use of lead paint in 1978, many Americans may have thought lead paint poisoning went away. It didn't. Thick layers of lead paint cover the walls in 75 percent of houses built before the late '70s, according to a 1990 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report.

The Centers for Disease Control calls lead poisoning the most serious environmental threat to children. Even low levels of lead in children can cause life-long learning and behavioral problems. High levels can result in mental retardation. The Coalition Against Childhood Lead Poisoning estimates that in Baltimore about 30,000 kids have enough lead in their blood to affect their performance at school.

In 1990, 51 percent of Maryland children whose blood was tested were diagnosed with elevated lead levels, and only 5 percent of all Maryland children under 6, the most threatened population, were even tested.

Like every societal ill of great magnitude, this one doesn't lend itself to easy solutions. For years families, landlords and the state have argued about where to place the onus of responsibility in lead poisoning cases. This year, in an unprecedented move, two groups that usually lock horns on the subject, the lead poisoning coalition and the Property Owners Association, came together in support of a single piece of legislation in the General Assembly. The Lead Paint Poisoning Prevention and Compensation Act was designed to give property owners liability insurance coverage in exchange for contributions to a fund, administered by the state, that would give compensatory awards to lead poisoning victims. To bolster funding, sponsors added a fee of 50 cents per gallon of lead paint sold in Maryland. (Lead paint is still used for industrial purposes.)

But paint manufacturing lobbyists went to work. They influenced delegates to kill the proposed fee and call for a study of the lead paint poisoning problem instead. Once again, paint manufacturers have been able to avoid responsibility for the poisoning problem, even while they admit to the hazards. (Although the dangers have been known for half a century, the manufacturers continued to produce lead paint for interior use until the 1970s.)

The billion-dollar paint industry, which profited from the sale of the same paint that is poisoning children today, wants to have its cake and eat it, too. No one group wants to bear the entire burden of attacking lead paint poisoning, and no one expects the manufacturers to do so. But it's more than reasonable to expect them to bear the burden along with landlords, parents and the state. They have the clearest link to the poisoning. But even though landlords and citizen advocates were able to compromise, the manufacturers refused to ante up.

The Coalition Against Childhood Lead Poisoning, the Property Owners Assocation and other advocates are now urging the Senate to pass a new version of the bill. It would establish a 15-member commission with two representatives from the paint industry. The commission would determine the best way to establish a compensation fund for victims. So the door is still open for the manufacturers to help solve the poisoning problem.

But if voluntary participation won't help, perhaps the courts will. New York City has a $50 million suit pending against paint manufacturers for the clean-up of lead paint hazards in public housing. Philadelphia has filed a class-action suit on behalf of all major metropolitan cities to abate lead paint in public buildings. Such litigation won't be necessary in Maryland if the paint industry owns up to its responsibility.

Susan G. Dunn is a Baltimore writer and a member of the Coalition Against Childhood Lead Poisoning.

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