NEW ORLEANS - NAACP President Kweisi Mfume urged sanctions yesterday against the paint industry and states and cities that don't follow federal regulations to cut exposure to lead paint.
"We call today on this president and on this Congress to take federal action by withholding dollars to states that are not complying [with] basic requirements of the Medicaid bill and Medicaid funding that they get," Mfume said. "We believe that funding ought to end."
He said he and President Bush need to work together on lead paint and other racially sensitive issues.
Also yesterday, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People declined to call immediately for a boycott of Mississippi over objections to the state's flag.
During a news conference at the NAACP's 92nd annual convention, Mfume would not say when the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People plans to file lawsuits against lead paint manufacturers, nor would he name targeted companies.
"The lead paint industry has known for a long time the negative aspects of lead-based paint," Mfume said. "The lead paint industry didn't stop its production of lead-based paint until forced to by the government. We're prepared to litigate as long as it might take us."
Mfume said lead paint industry officials have insisted for years that their products were safe. However the paint has been linked to lower IQ, mental retardation, learning difficulties, behavioral problems, stunted growth and hearing loss. At high levels, lead is also believed to cause kidney damage, seizures, coma and death.
Lead paint was banned from use on interior surfaces in 1978 but is present in many older buildings.
Some industry leaders, Mfume said, have blamed the victims. `They would say it's the people who were not clean, who allow their kids to ingest the paint," he said.
But he said yesterday that since news broke of the civil rights group's plans to sue industry officials, some companies have contacted his office requesting talks.
"Unless they're prepared to talk about greater abatement and greater treatment, those conversations won't carry much weight," Mfume said. "You can't buy the NAACP off on this issue."
Meanwhile, Mfume said it is time for him and Bush to meet to address lead paint and other issues.
"We've got to get beyond our differences," Mfume said, adding that he plans to write to Bush next week to request a meeting.
Mfume also said it's time for Bush to fulfill a campaign pledge and ensure that no child is "left behind."
"We call on the federal government and this president, who continues to say that he doesn't want to leave any children behind, to recognize that even some of the children in some of the pictures [taken with Bush] may, in fact, have high levels of lead," Mfume said. "We call on the president and all the resources of his government to really move with great dispatch to help us help others."
Nationwide, 11.2 percent of all African-American children suffer from lead paint poisoning, compared with 4 percent of Mexican-Americans and 2.3 percent of white children, according to Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Baltimore-based Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning.
Nationally, 4.4 percent of children ages 1 to 5 are considered "lead-poisoned," she said.
Mfume said he will ask Gov. Parris N. Glendening, chairman of the National Association of Governors, to "get the message out and the [sense of]) urgency out" to governors nationwide.
In an interview, Mfume said Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley "clearly understands the problem, having served in the City Council and with people and communities." Mfume said he talked with members of O'Malley's office Monday and will discuss lead paint in detail when he returns to Baltimore.
Also yesterday, voting delegates at the NAACP convention declined to call for a boycott of Mississippi over its state flag, as some had speculated they would.
Eugene Bryant Sr., president of the Mississippi State Conference of Branches, said NAACP members will continue pressuring Mississippi legislators. On April 17, in a nonbinding referendum, 65 percent of Mississippi voters said they favored keeping the flag, which features a Confederate battle symbol. Bryant said he hopes the flag will be changed before a boycott is necessary.
"We will set a certain time for Mississippi to take action," Bryant said. "We are not calling for a boycott today. We're hoping the Mississippi Development Authority and the Mississippi Economic Council will realize that no company wants to come to Mississippi, especially when there's a threat of a boycott."
Bryant said Mississippi NAACP leaders will work with churches, fraternities, sororities and other businesses and organizations to come up with a plan.
A boycott of South Carolina, which flew a Confederate battle flag from its statehouse, cost that state tens of millions of dollars before the flag was removed.