Paint: Time to get the lead out

Two painters in protective suits remove lead paint from an old house. (Photo: Jaime Hooper)

“Adverse publicity.” That’s how three giant lead paint companies dismissed the harm their product caused to children and pregnant mothers.

“Get rid of our slums.”  That was the lead paint producers’ solution to the concentration of toxic paint in communities of color. When the industries’ self-condemning 1955 memo was produced in court, advocates for poor and underserved communities hoped that the companies’ acknowledgement of their role in poisoning would lead to a long-overdue cleanup effort to keep more people from getting sick.

We were wrong.

After losing a landmark lawsuit, losing an appeal, and having further appeals denied, the big three paint companies – Sherwin-Williams, ConAgra Products, and NL Products (formerly National Lead) have responded with a plan as callous as it is audacious.
The idea of paint companies asking Californians to use the same funding that could go to health care and education to cleaning up their mess is not only wrong but patently offensive.

Seeing no way to prevail in the courts, the Big Three filed a ballot initiative that would nullify the court judgment holding them responsible for lead paint cleanup in 10 counties, and effectively pardon them by preventing any future suits. Perhaps worst of all, the toxic paint producers’ initiative would force taxpayers to clean up the companies’ own toxic paint mess, draining nearly $4 billion dollars from our state budget.

As an organization deeply concerned about the pregnancy outcomes of black women, the idea of paint companies asking Californians to use the same funding that could go to healthcare and education to cleaning up their mess is not only wrong but patently offensive.

The companies are rationalizing their initiative on an enormous lie – that their initiative protects homeowners from having paint-contaminated properties declared a “public nuisance.” A new website and ad campaign paid for by these same paint companies falsely informs Californians their homes are “red tagged” and will lose value.

No matter how many coats of toxic varnish they paint on it, not one home is – or could be – declared a nuisance in the court judgment that ordered the companies to clean up toxic paint.  In fact, the judges who upheld the court ruling made it crystal clear that it’s companies’ own negligent behavior that put homeowners at risk, and it’s the companies who should be responsible to clean up toxic paint.  Now, the companies have raised the specter of lawsuits against unwitting homeowners in order to make their own outrageous threats a reality.

Millions of California homes built before 1978 still have lead paint contamination that can cause permanent brain damage and developmental disabilities in children. In addition, lead contamination in pregnant women have been linked to low weight babies, premature birth and miscarriages.  The Centers for Disease Control have declared that there is no safe level of lead paint for children.

Health and children’s advocates are backing a package of legislation that will ensure the paint producers clean up their mess and prevent more kids from getting sick. The bills include:

AB 2073 (Chiu) protects homeowners from frivolous lawsuits threatened by the lead paint corporations if the homeowners participate in the lead paint abatement program created by the courts.
AB 2934 (Stone) would allow the state to contract with counties to certify lead paint inspectors
AB 2074 (Bonta) removes a legal hurdle to homeowners holding poison paint manufacturers legally accountable.
AB 2995 (Carrillo) classifies the presence of lead-based paint as a physical injury to the property.
AB 3009 (Quirk) would enact a fee on paint manufacturers to create a fund for residents of single-family or multi-family dwellings to clean up lead paint.

–AB 2803 (Limón) would allow homeowners to seek damages for clean-up or otherwise implement their own clean-up without fear of liability lawsuits

Californians have overwhelmingly rejected bullying tactics from Big Tobacco makers and other corporate giants who would stick us with the bill after putting us at risk. There’s no reason taxpayers should pick up the cost to clean up Big Paint’s poison.

That’s why advocates for California’s underserved communities are asking lawmakers to pick up where the courts left off and hold the big toxic paint producers accountable.

Ed’s Note: Nourbese Flint is policy director of the Black Women for Wellness. 

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