NAACP Sparks Attention to Lead Poisoning

By Julia Hernandez, J.D. candidate 2003

Lead poisoning has come under public scrutiny recently with the possible NAACP involvement in litigation on behalf of victims of lead poisoning.  The NAACP has expressed concern about the issue because children, and particularly low income children, are at higher risk of exposure to lead than adults.  In fact, children from low income families are four times more likely to have high levels of lead in their blood than children from high income families.  R. Reigart, Health Effects of Lead in Children and Adults (August 9, 1999) available at http://www.leadpoison.net/research/full-impact.html.  In Baltimore, for example, most victims of lead poisoning are poor African American children living in inner city neighborhoods.  Timothy Wheeler and Jim Haner, $50 Million Pledged to Fight Lead Poisoning (09/08/2000), available at http://www.sunspot.net/bal-lead29sep08.story.

Many low income families live in old houses or apartments with lead based paint on the walls.  As lead based paint ages, microscopic lead dust falls off and clings to the floors, clothes, and children’s toys.  When children put their hands in their mouths after having had their hands on the floor, they unknowingly ingest lead.  From the children’s mouths, lead travels to the stomach and intestines.  The stomach lining and intestines absorb lead into the bloodstream.  Lead blocks nerve endings and hinders proper brain development.  Lead is stored in the bones and teeth where it regularly encounters the soft tissue pools of the body.  Id.

Lead poisoning can affect the renal system, the central nervous system, the reproductive system, and it also causes high blood pressure.  Id.  Children exposed to lead are more likely to have behavioral problems, hyperactivity, learning disorders, and lower IQ test scores.  Many times, these effects are permanent.  Some children with high lead levels are more likely to become drug addicts.  Some of these children end up in the criminal justice system as adults because of violent and aggressive behavior.  The justice system does not currently test or treat defendants for lead poisoning.  Jim Haner, Victims of Lead Unnoticed by Courts Justice System Fails to Track Poisoning, Despite its Crime Effects; ‘Not Even on the Radar’ (10/08/2000), available at http://www.sunspot.net/bal-leadvictimsoct08.story.  It is important to note that these behavioral changes do not occur in a vacuum and are not solely caused by lead poisoning.  Socioeconomic status, family relationships, and environment are some of the factors that play into behavioral problems.

Nevertheless, as the harmful effects of lead on children became more apparent, Congress outlawed the use of lead in paint in 1978.  Title X of the 1992 Housing and Community Development Act delegated authority to the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to promulgate regulations pertaining to lead in buildings. The EPA sets minimum standards for lead based paint abatement, inspections, and risk assessments.  R. Reigart, Health Effects of Lead in Children and Adults (August 9, 1999) available at http://www.leadpoison.net/research/full-impact.html.  However, the EPA does not mandate lead abatement.  HUD, on the other hand, regulates lead control in federally assisted housing, community development, and loan guarantee programs.  Id.  HUD also provides grants to address the dangers of lead paint in low-income, privately-owned homes.  Id.

The Lead Hazard Reduction Act of 1992 (Act) provides criminal sanctions for property owners who do not notify their tenants of lead paint hazards.  Landlords can serve prison time or pay fines up to $250,000 per violation.  The Act requires landlords to take classes about the Act and provide their tenants with an EPA pamphlet about how to minimize the dangers of lead poisoning.  Landlords must keep tenant signatures that indicate that they received the pamphlet on file to prove their compliance with the Act.

Despite federal, state, and city laws to guard against lead exposure, children continue to suffer from lead poisoning.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that one million children in the United States have lead levels high enough to cause irreversible health damage.  Eric Berger, EPA Warns of Lead Based Paint Risks Storm Repairs can Endanger Kids, Houston Chronicle (July 12, 2001), available at http://www.chron.com/cr/CDA/printstory.hts/metropolitan/966791.  The NAACP recently announced that it may file lawsuits against the lead paint industry and cities and states that do not follow state and federal laws.  NAACP president, Kaweisi Mfume, in his address at the NAACP 92nd annual convention, also called on the federal government to test all at risk children for lead.  Reuters, NAACP to Sue U.S. Paint Manufacturers Over Lead (July 11, 2001) available at http://www.dailynews.yahoo.com/h/nm/20010711/hl/naacp_lead_1.html.

Mfume also asserted that the paint industry traditionally puts the blame for lead poisoning on families for not bathing enough or not picking up flaked chips of paint.  Id.  In response to this, paint industry representatives say that they want to work with the NAACP, but a lawsuit would have a “chilling effect on cooperative solutions.”  Associated Press, Deborah Kong, NAACP Leader Pressures Paint Companies (07/11/01) available at http://www.dailynews.yahoo.com/h/ap/20010711/us/naacp_conference_16.html.  Moreover, Tom Graves, vice president and general counsel for the National Paint and Coating Association said that a class action lawsuit against them would be a “waste of resources.”  Id.  Whether the NAACP will follow through with a lawsuit or when it will be filed is yet to be announced.  However, the NAACP's show of interest and readiness to act will probably spur more attention to the issue.

With the prevalence of lead poisoning in children, especially in low income children, NAACP attention to the issue may awaken much needed action on the part of homeowners, landlords, and enforcement agencies to protect their children from the potentially devastating effects of lead poisoning.  The correlation between lead poisoning and violence and criminal behavior means that action is in the interest of all of society.

08/16/01