Maine starts lead-paint inquiry

Consumer affairs
By ASHLEY RIGAZIO  |  July 19, 2006

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Following a landmark decision holding paint companies responsible for lead-poisoned children in Rhode Island, Maine officials are discussing whether to sue paint manufacturers for lead exposure here.

Linda Conti, chief of the Maine attorney general’s consumer-protection division, declined to comment on her agency’s research regarding lead litigation, but acknowledged that her office has been meeting with public-health activists since March and confirmed that two Maine officials attended a lead litigation conference in Boston last month.

According to state officials, lead poisons more than 1000 Maine children each year. Lead can cause learning disabilities, behavioral problems, seizures, and, in severe cases, death in children 6 years old and younger.

Until 1950, houses were commonly decorated with paints containing up to 50 percent lead. Lead-based paint continued to be used for its durability and shine until 1978, when the federal government banned it from all new housing. (It is still manufactured for industrial purposes.) According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, the number of American children with elevated blood-lead levels has since dropped from an estimated four million to 310,000 in 2002.

But the paint industry, like tobacco, has become a magnet for lawsuits, and has been bombarded with public-nuisance claims and product-liability cases in 17 states, though not in Maine. Most cases were dismissed or withdrawn by the plaintiff before trial, sometimes as a result of settlements paid by the paint companies, who did not admit wrongdoing.

The paint industry suffered its biggest defeat to date in February, when Sherwin-Williams, NL Industries, and Millennium Holdings were found guilty of creating a public nuisance in Rhode Island. Co-defendant Atlantic Richfield Company, which took over two lead-pigment manufacturers in 1975, was found not guilty. DuPont Corporation settled for $12 million. According to reports, the ruling (which has been appealed) could cost the companies between $1.37 billion and $3.74 billion in restitution.

Besides Rhode Island Attorney General Patrick Lynch, no federal or state attorney general has filed suit to date. But activists like Sandra Roseberry, vice-president of the American Lead Poisoning Help Association, are pushing for Maine to take action.

In 1983, Roseberry purchased a home from the Veterans Administration, a federal agency. The 19th-century home, last painted in the 1960s, had lead paint on most surfaces, including floors. Roseberry says government officials did not warn her about the danger, as required by a 1978 federal law. In 1985 her two children were diagnosed with severe lead poisoning.

Since March, Roseberry and other local activists have been urging Maine Attorney General Steven Rowe to sue former lead pigment manufacturers to remove lead from all of Maine’s homes.

“We could potentially have 454,000 homes in Maine that contain some amount of hazardous lead-based paint. We’re looking at over $5 billion (in restitution),” Roseberry says.

Should Maine sue the paint companies, one opponent may be the very man who helped Maine win a $1.4 billion settlement from the tobacco industry. Andrew Ketterer, state attorney general from 1995 to 2000, is now a consultant helping paint companies defeat precisely the type of litigation he and others developed the model for when fighting Big Tobacco.

Ketterer and the paint industry believe lead abatement is the responsibility of a homeowner or landlord.

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