Lead Paint Verdict Is No Help To Kids

Armen Hareyan's picture
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The Milwaukee verdict on lead paint is in. Wisconsin's children lost.

The jury in the City of Milwaukee's lawsuit against NL Industries, Inc., a leading manufacturer of lead paint, established that lead paint in homes was a public nuisance. However, the jury also decided that the company was not negligent.

There had been great hope that the paint industry would be held accountable for the enormous damage lead paint has done to multiple generations of children.

Now, for the moment, those hopes are dashed. But when it comes to the total cost of lead paint and lead poisoning in Wisconsin, even the $52.6 million sought by Milwaukee seems like just the first drop in the paint bucket.

Lead poisoning is a huge problem. More than 40,000 Wisconsin children under age 6 have been found to be poisoned by lead since 1996.

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Lead poisoning creates very serious medical and behavioral problems. It interferes with a child's normal brain development, resulting in lower IQ and behavior problems like aggression and hyperactivity. It is the greatest predictor of school disciplinary problems, delinquency and adult criminal behavior. It can destroy families. It can also be fatal.

The primary cause of lead poisoning in young children and infants is lead dust from chipping and peeling paint in homes built before 1950. The problem is acute in Milwaukee, where some 31 percent of all residences are at high risk for lead poisoning. However, we've had cases of childhood lead poisoning in every county in the state.

Windows with lead-based paint are a common source of childhood lead poisoning in Wisconsin. The state estimates the cost of replacing every lead-tainted residential window in the state to be $3.4 billion. That's serious money--but it's only the cost to replace windows.

Until we address this problem, Wisconsin taxpayers, health insurers and families bear the costs for medical treatment, special education, juvenile justice and future loss of earnings due to lead poisoning.

State and local public health departments are working hard on this issue. Last year, our Department's Division of Public Health revised its plan to eliminate childhood lead poisoning by 2010. The outcome of this lawsuit means we must redouble our efforts, including working with landlords to remove the lead from their properties.

The sad fact is that, for many children, screening can simply identify the problem, not prevent it. The infusion of funding from the lawsuit would have helped more kids look forward to leading productive and fruitful lives, free of the scourge of lead poisoning. The challenge for Wisconsin now is to identify other resources to fix lead problems.

That doesn't mean the paint industry is off the hook. Getting the paint industry to pay its fair share of the costs of lead poisoning is a struggle that will not end. It will not end because we owe it to our kids to do our very best to get them the protection they deserve.

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