Lead paint bill dies

Measure was aimed at easing lawsuits against industry

House panel unanimous

Legislation vigorously opposed by lobbyists for manufacturers

March 11, 2000|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A bill that would have made it easier to collect damages from paint manufacturers for the harm caused by lead poisoning was defeated last night in a House of Delegates committee in Annapolis.

The measure, which had drawn strong opposition from business groups as well as from manufacturers, was turned down without debate by a unanimous vote of the House Judiciary Committee.

The defeat was a setback for the law firm of Peter G. Angelos, which hopes to force the lead paint industry to pay damages on a scale similar to the billions of dollars in the national tobacco settlement.

The bill was also supported by the city of Baltimore, which potentially could have sued for millions of dollars in compensation for what it has spent on lead abatement and the effects of lead poisoning.

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore health commissioner, told the committee at a hearing Thursday that more than 3,300 city children have been diagnosed with lead poisoning. In children, the disease can cause learning disabilities, slowed growth, hyperactivity, impaired hearing and brain damage.

Advocates for victims of lead paint poisoning and the American Academy of Pediatrics had also supported the bill, hoping to open the door to lawsuits by individuals as well as governments. Supporters contended that the paint companies ignored the known hazards of lead paint for decades.

The legislation, sponsored by Baltimore Democratic Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, would have introduced a legal standard under which plaintiffs could have collected from makers of lead paint on the basis of their market share before the product fell into disuse. Lead paint was banned by Congress in 1978, but it lingers as a serious health hazard in many older buildings.

Plaintiffs must prove that the harm they suffered was caused by a particular manufacturer's lead paint -- a near-impossible standard.

Prospects for other lead-poisoning legislation this year are uncertain because none has emerged from committee.

The city is seeking three other bills.

One would require testing of all Maryland infants for lead poisoning. A second would close a loophole by which landlords evade responsibility for cleaning up lead paint hazards. A third measure -- which has not been scheduled for a hearing -- would require that tenants get a copy of any inspection made of lead paint in their rented dwelling.

Another bill, which might help pay for reducing lead-paint hazards, also remains in committee. The measure, also sponsored by Rosenberg, would grant property owners tax credits up to $10,000 for treating rental or owner-occupied homes.

In other action last night, the Judiciary Committee killed a bill that would have permitted patients with cancer and other diseases to use marijuana to relieve their symptoms and side effects of treatment.

After an emotional debate, the House Judiciary Committee voted the measure down 11-7, with one abstention.

The legislation, sponsored by Del. Donald E. Murphy, had been the subject of a four-hour hearing last month that brought out cancer and AIDS patients and other witnesses who told committee members that marijuana was the only drug that relieved their suffering.

"Each one of us and each one of our constituents potentially could be the victims of cancer or some other debilitating disease for which this drug works like no other," the Baltimore County Republican told fellow panel members.

Scientific evidence that marijuana can help certain patients is growing, and earlier this week both houses of the Hawaii legislature passed separate bills allowing medicinal use of marijuana.

But Del. Ann Marie Doory, a Baltimore Democrat, said that while she wanted to be compassionate, "I can't get past the fact it's against federal law."

A half-dozen states, including California, have legalized pot for medicinal use.

Sun staff writer Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

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