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Battle Lines Drawn Over Lead Paint Poisoning Liability

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Past suits against the paint manufacturers have failed because of difficulty proving which manufacturer produced the lead pigment that poisoned a particular child.

If the Maryland bill passes, it will allow Baltimore attorney Peter G. Angelos to pursue two lawsuits he has filed against the pigment industry, according to Don Ryan, director of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning.

Other market-share liability cases are expected, Ryan says. "There are at least a half-dozen cities and states watching what's happening in Rhode Island," he tells WebMD. One case that he expects will be filed shortly will pit Milwaukee against the paint companies.

So far, advocates of going after the paint companies have suffered one setback. In January, the New York State Appellate Court rejected the validity of the market-share liability theory and reversed a decision by a state judge in Buffalo that allowed plaintiffs in a lead paint poisoning case to proceed under that theory.

It's not just the paint companies being targeted. In another case against the New Orleans Housing Authority, the Louisiana Court of Appeals gave class-action status to up to 2,000 lead-poisoned children to sue as a group. If allowed to proceed, this case could set a precedent for future class-action lead poisoning cases.

In St. Louis, the Missouri Attorney General Jay Nixon recently filed suit in St. Louis City Circuit Court against Healthcare USA of Missouri, LLC, and Prudential Health Care Plan Inc. for failure to screen St. Louis children enrolled in Medicaid. The suit alleges breach of contract and Medicaid fraud, stating both companies accepted full payment for a range of services, including lead testing, yet failed to test 82%, or 17,000, Medicaid-enrolled children under age 2.

However, a panel of physicians and scientists affiliated with the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) concluded that for the majority of American children, "lead poisoning is a condition of the past."

"That's chilling," says Ryan, adding that lead poisoning is an environmental problem compounded by social problems, especially poverty.

For at least the last 50 years, progress in lead poisoning prevention has been a struggle among public health, civil rights, and other officials fighting for economic justice against the lead, gasoline, and real estate industries, he says. "It's not a thing of the past for the ... children suffering from lead poisoning."

 

Vital Information:

  • Lead poisoning has been eliminated from gasoline, new paint, food cans, and other products, but nearly 1 million children are exposed to lead-based products every day.
  • Many government bodies are exploring lawsuits against different players in the lead paint industry, accusing them of covering up known dangers about the substance.
  • Exposure to high levels of lead can cause brain and nervous system damage, seizures, coma, and death, and low-level exposure can adversely affect a child's ability to learn.
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