Nov. 29, 2006 – In the ongoing battle to eradicate lead poisoning, state and local governments have begun targeting the companies that sold toxic paint before it was banned for residential use in 1978. This week, grassroots activists are taking that fight to the streets.
Even though lead-laced pigment was taken off the market almost three decades ago, about one in four homes in the US still contains deteriorating lead paint or dust, according to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
"The federal government has provided money over the past ten years to help clean up the mess," said Ralph Scott, a director of the Alliance for Healthy Homes, an organization that works to eliminate home hazards like carbon monoxide and lead.
Scott noted the millions of dollars homeowners have spent to remove lead from their properties and the untold number of children poisoned by the substance. "Everyone is paying the price except one stakeholder," he said, "and thatâ€™s the pigment companies."
To pressure paint companies to increase funding for lead-paint clean up, the national grassroots group ACORN plans to protest at the offices and stores of paint giant Sherwin-Williams. The demonstrations will take place Thursday in cities including Little Rock, Arkansas and Atlanta, Georgia and Hartford, Connecticut.
The group said protests will also be held in Toronto and Vancouver, Canada; Tijuana, Mexico; Lima, Peru and Buenos Aires, Argentina.
"Everyone is paying the price except one stakeholder, and thatâ€™s the pigment companies."
ACORN is demanding the company establish lead-cleanup funds in cities where housing has high rates of lead hazards. The group also insists Sherwin-Williams provide lead-detection kits to households in high-risk neighborhoods.
Additionally, ACORN wants the company to comply with a 2003 attorneys general agreement requiring paint retailers to provide customers with information about safely repainting and repairing homes that are already painted with lead. ACORN says its own investigators found that 15 out of 40 stores surveyed did not carry the notices, disobeying the agreement.
Sherwin-Williams did not return requests for comment.
"We want better information at the point of sale," said Reverend Gloria Swieringa, who chairs the Maryland branch of ACORN. "We want them to reach into those deep pockets [to help clean up lead-based paint], or weâ€™re going to be encouraging the state to pressure companies, and if necessary, litigate."
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of children with elevated lead blood levels has steadily decreased from 122,000 in 1997 to 42,000 in 2004. Black children still have higher rates of lead poisoning than white and Latino children, though the disparity has also decreased over the past decade.
High levels of lead can damage kidneys and the nervous system. Lead exposure can also lead to learning disorders, mental retardation and sometimes death. Lead poisoning primarily affects children because their systems more readily absorb the heavy metal,and they are more likely to be exposed to lead particles on the floor or ground.
In recent years, many states and municipalities have sued paint manufacturers over lead hazards.
In 1999, Rhode Island sued various paint makers, including Sherwin-Williams and DuPont, for not only selling lead paint long after they knew about the substanceâ€™s hazards, but also for attempting to cover up the threat of lead poisoning.
In February of this year, a Rhode Island jury ruled the paint manufacturing companies were a "public nuisance" for selling lead-based paint and ordered the companies to clean up homes with lead hazards.
This month, California counties San Mateo and Santa Clara joined in a class-action lawsuit against several paint makers on behalf of public entities that have invested in lead cleanups.
The City of Milwaukee is suing National Lead Industries and local company Mautz Paint in a case going to trial early next year.
Paint-manufacturing companies, however, deny responsibility for the lead problem.
"Litigation is not the answer,'' Bonnie Campbell, a spokesperson for several paint companies including Sherwin-Williams, told the San Jose Mercury News. "These companies are not responsible for risks today from a product made long ago."
But Scott from the Alliance for Healthy Homes has a different take. "Theyâ€™re the ones that made money off of this and manipulated the public opinion and political system and spent lots of money doing it," he said. "So it seems fair they should be part of the solution."