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May 30 2007 - Lawsuit over lead paint goes to trial

The makers of lead paint knew as early as the 1930s that the lead pigment was dangerous to children but still promoted the product as safe and superior to others, a city lawyer told jurors as the trial of an $85 million lawsuit got under way.

NL Industries Inc., which for years was the largest U.S. manufacturer of lead pigment in paint, created a public nuisance that poisoned thousands of Milwaukee youngsters, and it also conspired with others to create the nuisance, said Richard Lewis, lead attorney for the city.

Defense attorney Donald Scott countered Tuesday that the dangers were public knowledge, yet the city of Milwaukee and the federal government mandated the use of lead paint for their projects into the 1970s because it is so durable.

Scott told the jurors in Milwaukee County Circuit Court that the public nuisance is not from the paint but from the failure of some property owners to properly maintain it.

Milwaukee's lawsuit against NL Industries, formerly National Lead Co., is the second lead-paint case in the nation to go to trial. The State of Rhode Island won a verdict against three manufacturers in February 2006.

The city also sued Madison-based Mautz Paint, now owned by Sherwin-Williams, but that part of the lawsuit was severed for this trial.

Studies have linked high lead levels to a number of physical problems in young children, including diminished intelligence, behavioral disorders and kidney problems.

"Every major health organization. . . says the same thing. . . (that) the most common source of childhood lead poisoning is lead paint and the dust that comes from it," Lewis told the jury in opening statements.

He said more than 19,000 Milwaukee children younger than 6 were found to have elevated lead levels in the last decade, including 884 last year alone.

Most are concentrated in two of the city's poorest areas, he said.

Lewis said Milwaukee has spent $53 million on lead abatement in about 11,000 homes, and the Milwaukee Health Department "has been left holding the bag for a problem they did not create."

Scott contended that children in better-maintained homes in the same neighborhoods highlighted by the city didn't have high lead levels.

"Maintenance is the key issue," Scott said.

Instead of going after NL, the city should go after lead in soils and also prosecute property owners who won't maintain their properties.

"The city has the power to do that. That's where the problem is," he said.
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