Lead-paint lawsuits dog Kennedy Krieger

Study seeking cheaper abatement draws claims children still poisoned

  • Kimberly Smith, mother of Cecil Harris, who has lead poisoning, is is pictured in front of the house, where she says he was poisoned during a study when she lived there.
Kimberly Smith, mother of Cecil Harris, who has lead poisoning,… (Lloyd Fox, Baltimore Sun )
June 07, 2014|By Timothy B. Wheeler and Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

Kimberly Smith believed she was "in good hands" when she rented an East Baltimore rowhouse nearly 20 years ago that was part of a Kennedy Krieger Institute study of lead paint remediation techniques.

Kennedy Krieger takes care of children, Smith thought at the time. One of her children had suffered lead poisoning when the family had lived elsewhere, she recalled in a recent interview, and she was pregnant then with her fourth child, Cecil.

"I was told it was a great opportunity — it was lead-safe," Smith said. "It was one less thing I had to worry about."

But something went wrong while she and her children lived at 1110 Rutland Ave., according to a lawsuit filed in Baltimore Circuit Court. Though the house had undergone repairs intended to reduce lead-paint hazards, the suit alleges that her infant son was being poisoned from the time she brought him home from the hospital until she moved out of the house more than three years later. By then, Smith says, her son was showing signs of behavior problems, which she now sees as a symptom of brain damage that would plague him throughout his life.

The suit brought by Smith's son, Cecil Harris, is one of several pending in Baltimore Circuit Court that accuse the East Baltimore pediatric hospital of exposing young children to harmful levels of lead in the 1990s while studying ways to treat the toxic paint used in nearly every city home at the time. The lawsuit seeks unspecified monetary damages.

The issue has dogged the internationally recognized institute since a blistering 2001 ruling by the Maryland Court of Appeals said researchers knowingly exposed children to lead without warning them of the risks. The judges, in allowing other children's cases to go forward, likened the study to the notorious Tuskegee experiment in Alabama, in which federal researchers beginning in the 1930s withheld treatment from hundreds of black men with syphilis for 40 years so they could document how the disease progressed.

To some — defenders and detractors of the Kennedy Krieger study alike — the litigation is a tragic outcome for an institution dedicated to helping children, and to a pair of crusading researchers otherwise credited with sincere and significant contributions to the lengthy struggle to end childhood lead poisoning.

Other cases have wound through the courts in the years since the Kennedy Krieger study was halted. In 2009, two siblings won a $2.5 million judgment against City Homes Inc., the nonprofit landlord that enrolled participants in the study; Kennedy Krieger was dismissed as a defendant before trial. That judgment was overturned on a technicality, and the case later was settled for undisclosed terms.

At least four other cases have been settled. A Kennedy Krieger spokesman declined to comment about the settlements but said there have been no judgments against the hospital related to the study. Legal claims by at least three other study participants were dismissed, records show.

Harris' suit alleges that Kennedy Krieger designed a study "knowing that it would use children, including the plaintiff, as human lead barometers, all the while failing to disclose the grave danger and risks that the study visited on such children, perpetuating the myth that such research was both safe and ethical."

Now that the children are becoming adults, they still haven't been "told the real truth," said William "Billy" Murphy Jr., senior partner in the law firm that brought several of the suits, including Harris' and a class-action complaint on behalf of all children involved in the study.

Over the years, Kennedy Krieger and others have defended the study, which was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Bryan Stark, an assistant vice president for Kennedy Krieger, declined to comment directly on the Harris lawsuit but said the study was a sincere and productive effort to find solutions to a public-health epidemic gripping Baltimore and cities across the nation at the time.

"We had, unfortunately, one of the highest lead-poisoning levels in the country," Stark said. He said the institute "had a hospital full of kids who were poisoned" back then, and was trying to figure out ways to reduce their main exposure — from deteriorating lead paint in older, often rundown rental housing.

"We were working with other organizations and community groups," he said, "trying to provide whatever we could to advocate for better housing for kids and families."

The perils of lead

The Lead-Based Paint Abatement and Repair and Maintenance Study was part of a nationwide effort to find cheaper lead cleanup methods amid a public health crisis that was harming thousands of Baltimore children. In 1998, 3,900 city children had harmful levels of lead in their blood out of 5,100 statewide.

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