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.
Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, authors of “Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children”
For much of the 20th century, America was plagued by a terrible lead poisoning epidemic that sent children into comas, convulsions, and even death. Lead paint covered the walls of homes throughout the nation, especially in the old, industrial cities, and poisoned hundreds of thousands of children. Philadelphia, it turns out, was the birthplace of a revolution in thinking about the impact of lead on children’s development.
In the 1960s, as Civil Rights organizations, community groups and political activists turned the country’s attention to poverty, lead poisoning became a symbol of the terrible price that children paid for absentee landlords who crowded families into poorly maintained and crumbling tenements.
But as health departments began assessing and addressing the worst conditions, they uncovered ever-more troubling facts. Huge numbers of children had blood lead levels above 40 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dL), then the amount that was considered dangerous in children, but did not show overt clinical symptoms.(Today, blood-lead levels above 5 µg/dL are considered the “reference level” above which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends action be taken.)