$1.1 billion is merely the headline in momentous California lead paint case

Update: A California judge on Tuesday, Jan. 7, issued a final verdict that added another $50 million to what the companies must pay.

On Monday, a California judge ordered three corporations —Sherwin-Williams, NL Industries, and ConAgra—to contribute $1.1 billion into a state-run fund to clean up lead paint hazards in 10 California cities and counties.


The ruling,  in a case that was originally filed in 2000, calls attention to lead paint as an ongoing and urgent public health risk. As Santa Clara Superior Court Judge James P. Kleinberg wrote in his decision, “white lead carbonate and the paint in which it is a key ingredient are harmful particularly to children,” “there is no safe level of lead in the blood,” “lead paint causes significant physical harm to individuals which has lasting effects,” and “there is a clear and present danger that needs to be addressed.” All of these facts have been well-known to the scientific community for a long time. Here in Philadelphia we have been witnessing the effects of lead-ridden housing for decades; every year thousands of children in the city and suburban counties are poisoned by lead.

Judge Kleinberg’s ruling is momentous, however, because it acknowledged that companies had knowledge of the harm their products caused long before lead in house paint was banned in the United States in 1978. Scientists began to describe the link between lead-based paints and lead poisoning, particularly in children, as early as the opening decade of the 20th century. In his decision he found evidence that “the defendants sold lead paint with actual and constructive knowledge that it was harmful,” and so held them liable for the cleanup in a rare loss for the industry. Hence, the $1.1 billion remediation fund.

David Rosner, an expert on the history of lead paint, was a key witness in the case. Rosner is the author, with Gerald Markowitz, of Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America's Children and Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution. Both books revealed the history of industry knowledge about the toxicity of lead paint. Rosner, a professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, where he co-directs the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health,  is a leading public health historian whose work has focused on the histories of occupational health and industrial disease. In a recent post for The Public’s Health, he and Markowitz recounted the groundbreaking research on the effects, unrecognized at the time, of low levels of lead exposure in children that pediatrician Herbert Needleman began in Philadelphia with a study he dubbed The Tooth Fairy Project..

I spoke by phone with Rosner, who reflected on the ruling and what it suggests about the responsibility of public health scholars, scientists, and practitioners to be social reformers:

Michael Yudell: Can you describe your role in this case?

David Rosner: I was an expert witness who provided the historical documentation of knowledge regarding the dangers of lead in children. Children were, as Gerald Markowitz and I have shown in our work on the history of lead, getting poisoned by lead paint as early as the early 1900s. The documentation from our work became evidence in the case. My role was to give the background why this was a serious issue, to show the negligence of these companies, to show how irresponsible they were, and why the evidence compels us to hold these companies accountable for what they did.

What does an historian bring to this issue that makes them a useful witness?

The historian can bring a deeper perspective and can bring to the jury, judges, and the public an understanding of how deep into American society and American history these issues go. History is an important way to establish responsibility and to help create a sense of who is responsible for the damage that’s been caused and the dangers that continue to exist. By looking at the history of lead paint you see the past actions of these corporations that have polluted our environment. The history also brings a level of humanity to these cases, moving beyond the epidemiology and statistics to directly look at the impact of lead poisoning on the lives of children who were damaged.

Why, in the face of such strong evidence, do companies continue to claim we didn’t know about the dangers of lead when they marketed and sold them?

Because if they admit to past wrongs they are accepting responsibility. This, in turn, may result in being forced to clean up the mess they created. They are counting on people’s historical ignorance, and a belief that damages that occurred in the past should be irrelevant today. They also want people to believe that findings about the dangers of lead are such recent discoveries that nobody should be held accountable. The history undermines these assumptions. Americans, as we learned from Monday’s ruling, do pay attention to the past and the past is relevant. By providing the historical data, you can clearly see the assumptions that industry wants us to ignore.

What are the lessons here for the field of public health, in terms of other environmental public health issues?

This can be a really important case for public health to understand its responsibilities. And there are multiple lessons here. First, we should not just assume that in public health all we can do is study a problem. Instead, we have to form alliances with communities and other professions to press for broad issues of social reform. Second, we also should not think of ourselves as individual actors isolated from the political times. Third, we have to understand that public health is more than just dry statistics. We are doing this for people. All too often in the academy we think that the people we are talking to are other public health scientists. But as we can see here, there is a broad audience for our work and for those who want to understand it and understand why we do it.

But ultimately we have a choice to make: we have to consider whether we are merely researchers documenting something, or whether we are really going to be involved in efforts to reform our society. Are we social reformers or just scientists? This case illustrates that we have to be both.

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