San Jose Mercury News

Lead paint case: Appeal of Santa Clara County ruling leaves kids at risk

By Eula Bingham
Special to the Mercury News
Posted: 02/04/2015 10:00:00 AM

After fourteen years of legal wrangling, an important court decision is being appealed by paint companies that were ordered to pay $1.15 billion into a fund for removal of lead paint from homes in ten California jurisdictions. A reversal on appeal could harm thousands of children in California.

Santa Clara County is among the counties and cities that won a court trial before Superior Court Judge James P. Kleinberg, now retired. Last March, his decision held that Sherwin-Williams, NL Industries, and ConAgra were to remedy lead paint that causes lead poisoning resulting in "thousands of children presently and potentially victimized by this chemical." The 6th Appellate Court will hear oral arguments and decide the appeal in the near future.

In a significant decision for the public health, Kleinberg stated that "No safe blood lead level in children has been identified" and "Since antiquity, it has been well known that lead is highly toxic and causes severe health consequences when ingested."

Exposure to lead in children, from breathing the paint dust and hand-to-mouth behaviors, is linked to brain damage, including lowered IQ, learning disabilities, delayed development, seizures, coma and even death.

Nationally-recognized experts agree that lead paint in millions of homes built before 1978 is the most significant source of lead exposure in children in the US. In 1991, the Secretary of Health and Human Services called lead the "number one environmental threat to the health of children in the United States." This fact remains true.

I make these comments based on a lifetime researching the effects of toxic chemicals, including lead, and working with colleagues who recognized the importance of cleaning up lead paint from housing as early as 30 years ago.

In the early 1970's, I served on a National Academy of Sciences committee that wrote a report to Congress on the effects of lead. Our work helped lead to the labeling of lead paint and eventual banning of lead in paint for use in homes in 1978 by the federal government.

I also served as Assistant Secretary of Labor and head of the Occupational and Health Administration (OSHA), working to reduce lead exposures in the workplace.

The judge's decision delivered a strong blow to the lead paint industry that has been working constantly, since the 1920's, against bans, regulations and warnings concerning the terrible toll that lead paint takes on children. The companies refused to admit, and never warned the public, that once lead paint is used in homes, it stays forever and remains a hazard until it is removed.

The case has brought national attention to lead poisoning in children from lead paint. If affirmed on appeal, the most vulnerable--the poor and minority children living in older housing in California--will have the opportunity to live safer, healthier lives.

Eula Bingham, PhD, is Professor Emerita, Environmental Health Department, University of Cincinnati, and former Assistant Secretary of Labor and head of OSHA. She wrote this for this newspaper.