For most readers outside Rhode Island, Sheldon Whitehouse is known for being the newly elected Democratic senator who replaced Republican Lincoln Chafee, thereby helping the Democrats take control of the Senate. But for the people of Rhode Island, Whitehouse is also known as the former State Attorney General who initiated what is proving to be one of the most important public health victories of the past century.
Early this year Judge Michael Silverstein issued a ruling affirming a jury verdict in the longest civil trial in Rhode Island history. The jury held three lead pigment manufacturers responsible for an environmental and public health tragedy that over the past century has caused lead poisoning among tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of children, who ingested lead dust and flakes of decaying lead paint from the walls of houses and public buildings before it was banned in 1978. This is a groundbreaking decision, for it is the first time the industry has been held accountable for the terrible toll lead pigment has taken. It also marks the first effective strategy for actually ending the nightmare of lead poisoning.
For much of the past century, public health officials have dealt with lead poisoning by treating children with high lead levels in their blood. Damage from lead poisoning is permanent, and treatment to prevent further damage by removing kids from their homes or detoxifying them through chelation therapy (an intrusive method requiring repeated hospitalization) is palliative at best. More often than not, children have been sent back into homes only to be poisoned again.
The lawsuit brought by Whitehouse in 1999 proposed a new approach: Drawing on a host of documents from the Lead Industries Association (LIA), the pigment producers’ trade group, the suit contended that the industry knew lead was a dangerous product for nearly a century and therefore bears some responsibility not only for paying for the care of poisoned kids but also for preventing the poisoning of future generations. The state, with the assistance of a huge plaintiffs’ lawsuit, sued four pigment manufacturers–Sherwin Williams, NL Industries, Millennium Holdings and Atlantic Richfield–arguing that the industry should be held accountable for having knowingly sold a dangerous product to millions of homeowners. With historians presenting abundant documentation, the jury learned that the LIA not only knew lead paint was “a slow, cumulative poison” but discussed in private meetings the fact that kids were dying. The jury learned that despite many medical journal articles detailing deaths–and comas–from the early 1900s on, manufacturers continued to market lead paint as a safe and sanitary product for use on the walls, woodwork and windowsills of children’s rooms and schools, and even on toys. The jury decided to hold the industry accountable for having created a “public nuisance” and ordered, with Judge Silverstein affirming, three of the companies to “remedy” the public health problem by removing lead paint throughout the state. Since at least 240,000 of Rhode Island’s homes are covered in lead paint, the bill will be anywhere from $1.5 billion to $4 billion. The judge called for the naming of a “special master,” an expert capable of aiding him in deciding how to remove the paint.
While the industry will undoubtedly appeal the verdict to the State Supreme Court, the decision will have far-reaching public health implications. Already other states and communities are beginning suits based on the same legal principles that underlie this victory. In the words of state counsel Jack McConnell, the principle was simple: “If you help make a mess, you have to help clean it up.” For industry in general the message is even more stark: If you knowingly harm people, you will be held accountable. For the nation as a whole it is a good sign that Whitehouse, now a senator, is willing to take chances and hold a powerful industry to account.