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Battle Lines Drawn Over Lead Paint Poisoning Liability

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WebMD Health News

March 9, 2000 (Atlanta) -- Taking their cue from victories over the tobacco industry, government bodies have a new target in their sights: paint companies -- specifically those that at one time sold lead-based paint and coatings.

Regulations banning the use of lead in gasoline, new paint, food cans, and other products have substantially reduced the U.S. population's lead exposure over the past two decades, said Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., in a formal statement introducing the Lead Poisoning Expense Recovery Act in 1999. But as many as 1 million children are still exposed to lead-based products daily, he said.

Very high levels can have devastating health consequences, including brain and nervous system damage, seizures, coma, and death. Even low levels of lead in the blood can have detrimental effects on a child's ability to learn. This can be hazardous for children living in older communities where, until the 1970s, lead-based paint was used extensively.

The first salvo fired at the paint companies came from Rhode Island. Last November, the state's attorney general filed a lawsuit in state court accusing eight companies, including DuPont and Atlantic Richfield Company (ARCO), of promoting the use of lead paint while covering up the dangers it posed to children.

"There are many legal and technical issues involved that we believe show the Rhode Island lawsuit has no merit," DuPont spokesman Cliff Webb, director of media relations, tells WebMD. "That's why we, along with the other defendants, have filed a motion to dismiss."

ARCO spokeswoman Marylou Ferry tells WebMD in a faxed statement that ARCO has been sued unsuccessfully in a variety of cases because, in the late 1970s, ARCO bought a company that had once owned a company that made lead pigment more than 50 years ago.

"Trial lawyers are attempting to hold ARCO liable for a product that it never made, sold, or profited from -- a product that was made over 50 years ago, before the dangers of interior lead-based paint were known," she says.

The lawsuit also names as a defendant the Lead Industries Association, an industry trade group. It seeks to make the defendants pay for both treating children poisoned by lead paint and removing lead paint from buildings.

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