It’s About the Money, not the Children

Published November 28, 2006

The City of Akron recently (November 17) decided to temporarily drop its lawsuit against paint manufacturers who at one time (decades ago) sold lead paint. City spokesmen declined to say why the suit was dropped except that “they wanted to step back and take a more in-depth look at it.”

Here are some factors the city should consider as part of its “in-depth look”–factors that should convince them to drop the suit permanently.

The city’s suit sought three main types of relief: the removal of all lead-based paint from buildings in Akron, both public and private; funds for a public education campaign; and monetary damages for the city in an unspecified amount. Much of the relief sought is neither necessary nor advisable.

Removal of lead-based paint from all buildings in Akron means the “lead police” will be knocking on the door of every house and apartment built before 1978, demanding entry for inspection and testing for the presence of lead-based paint. But not even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expresses much alarm about risks of childhood exposure from the mere presence of intact lead paint.

There are relatively simple and inexpensive methods available to homeowners and landlords to keep lead paint intact, or to fix it if it deteriorates. So unless there is reason to suspect deteriorated lead-based paint is present in Akron houses and apartments, such inspections might not even be legal. They certainly are not necessary.

The suit also seeks funding for a public education campaign, but ongoing lead-poisoning educational activities are widespread already. Under federal law, buyers and renters of pre-1978 housing must be warned by sellers and landlords that such housing may contain lead-based paint and must be provided with information prepared by EPA on how to avoid risks to their children. Buyers and renters are advised to keep floors and surfaces free of dust and paint chips, test drinking water for lead leaching from lead pipes, have children remove their shoes to avoid tracking into the house outside soils contaminated with lead from gasoline or industrial operations, ensure that children wash their hands and faces frequently, and stop them from chewing on painted surfaces.

Education about lead hazards is also provided to children in the federal Head Start program and to mothers in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Women, Infants and Children program (WIC). Additionally, the Ohio Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Child and Family Health Services has had a comprehensive plan in place since 2004 to eliminate childhood lead poisoning by 2010 through its Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program. The program conducts an annual Lead Awareness Week, annual conferences, and billboard campaigns, and it works with pediatricians to raise their awareness of the need for childhood lead testing.

There is evidence that all of this outreach is working. According to the Ohio Department of Public Health, the number of children with elevated lead levels in their blood went from 180 in 1999 to 122 in 2005. The number of children with elevated blood levels of mild concern (10-14 micrograms per deciliter (µg/dl)) went from 94 in 1999 to 72 in 2005, and the number with slightly more elevated levels (15-19 µg/dl) went from 53 in 1999 to 26 in 2005. The next highest level (20-24 µg/dl) went from 19 in 1999 to 9 in 2005. Only the highest level (25 or more µg/dl) stayed about the same: 14 in 1999 compared with 15 in 2005.

We should, of course, protect children from lead poisoning. But is the problem of such magnitude that it warrants damages of upwards of $3.5 billion, which a Rhode Island jury awarded in a similar case? Of course it is–if you are one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers and stand to collect huge contingent fees, calculated by the size of the verdict, if they succeed.

Motley Rice is one such firm, representing the City of Akron in its case. Such contingent fee suits are also pending elsewhere in Ohio, and in California, Missouri, New Jersey, and Wisconsin.

What is at stake here is not the health of “the children.” It’s all about the money. Any doubt on this matter was resolved by Ron Motley himself, who in October 1999 told The Dallas Morning News, “If I don’t bring the entire lead paint industry to its knees within three years, I will give them my [120-foot] boat.”

Mr. Motley, it’s well past time for you to pay up.

Maureen Martin ([email protected]), an attorney, is senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Chicago that promotes free-market solutions to social and economic problems.