A child's suffering puts lead on trial

Paint poisoning suit seeks compensation for Baltimore family

September 27, 1999|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Sun Staff

When a routine blood test in 1995 showed that 2-year-old Reggie Smith was suffering from severe lead poisoning, his mother, Renee Kennedy, was astonished. The family's rented East Baltimore rowhouse had peeling paint and holes in the drywall. But Reggie seemed to be an active, healthy toddler.

"He had no symptoms," said Kennedy, 26, a single mother of three who works as a private-duty nurse. "But they said another week in that house and it could have been life-threatening."

One month in intensive care and another five months in three hospitals saved Reggie from mortal danger. But today, the damage that lead caused is evident. Reggie, now 7 and a second-grader at Harford Heights Elementary School, is in special education classes and has problems controlling his temper, says his mother.

Reggie and his 5-year-old sister, Shatara, who was less severely poisoned, are plaintiffs in one of two major lawsuits, filed last week in Baltimore Circuit Court by attorney Peter G. Angelos, that seek to put the record of the paint and pigment industries on public trial.

The first lawsuit, which also targets makers of additives to leaded gasoline, seeks $15 million in damages on behalf of each of six lead-poisoned children, including Reggie and Shatara Smith. All six children live in Baltimore, where nearly 1 in 3 children surveyed in 1997 had elevated blood lead levels and 1 in 15 suffered from lead poisoning.

The second lawsuit is a class action on behalf of as many as 1 million Maryland homeowners whose houses contain lead-based paint. Though no one has been poisoned in the vast majority of those homes, the suit contends that the presence of lead paint reduces property values and requires spending to control or remove the lead hazard.

Similar litigation converted asbestos and tobacco from topics of health controversy to targets of billion-dollar courtroom battles. Both supporters and critics of Angelos' lead lawsuits, part of a new wave of litigation against the lead industry, say they could have the same impact on lead poisoning.

Advocates for lead-poisoning victims generally welcomed the lawsuits as a spotlight on the problem and a possible source of money to pay for solutions. Some are already on Angelos' team: Two experts on lead poisoning at Kennedy Krieger Institute, Dr. J. Julian Chisolm Jr., who has treated victims for decades, and Mark R. Farfel, an expert on lead paint hazards, declined to comment because they have been retained by the Angelos firm as expert witnesses.

Nick Farr, who heads the National Center for Lead-Safe Housing in Columbia, said: "I would certainly support lawsuits to hold the manufacturers of lead pigment responsible. They knew it was a problem. They didn't warn people. Kids are getting poisoned, and it's an expensive problem to deal with."

Spokesmen for the paint and lead pigment industries say the lead litigation is a cynical attempt to enrich plaintiffs' lawyers in the guise of helping children. The lead pigment manufacturers have geared up for battle, hiring a Washington public relations man, Chris Collins, and distributing fact sheets, including one titled "A Potential Windfall for Lawyers, A Pittance for Children."

Tim Hardy, a Washington attorney representing NL Industries, a lead pigment maker and defendant in the lawsuits, said Angelos' allegation of an industrywide conspiracy to deceive the public is groundless.

"The plaintiffs' lawyers have taken old historical documents and interpreted them incorrectly and out of context to tell a false story," Hardy said. "These companies that are being sued were very responsible companies that cooperated with public health agencies and funded no-strings research at institutions like Harvard and Johns Hopkins."

The National Paint and Coatings Association points to the $1 million in donations and materials its members have given to a 3-year-old lead abatement program, called CLEARCorps, operated by the Shriver Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

But such programs are dwarfed by the scale of the problem. Last year, CLEARCorps made 220 houses and apartments lead-safe in Baltimore and four other cities. In Maryland, there are nearly 500,000 houses built before 1950, when lead-based paint was standard.

Neil Leifer, a Boston attorney whose pioneering 1987 federal lawsuit against lead paint makers was thrown out by an appeals court in 1992 said the Angelos suits may stand a better chance of success.

Evidence has been accumulating to show an industry conspiracy to defeat lead paint bans by minimizing the hazard, Leifer said. A number of court rulings nationally have been favorable to lead-paint plaintiffs, and the success of tobacco lawsuits also could influence the new lawsuits, he said.

Ron Richardson and Ted Flerlage, attorneys in the Angelos firm who have worked on the lead cases, said much of the 100-page history of alleged lead industry conduct included in the two lawsuits is based on newly uncovered documents and research.

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