NAACP Paint Lawsuit Defended, Debunked

By John Rossomando | July 7, 2008 | 8:19 PM EDT

( - The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is laying the groundwork for a lawsuit targeting the paint industry over alleged high rates of lead poisoning among African-American children.

The NAACP is calling childhood lead poisoning a "civil rights issue" because data from the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) indicate that black children in the U.S. are four to five times more likely to suffer the harmful effects of lead paint ingestion than white or Hispanic children.

But the crux of the suit stirs debate among different constituencies, with some claiming they're standing up for minority children, and others claiming the action is closer to extortion.

Litigating Against an Obsolete Product

Lead-based paint has been outlawed in the U.S. for decades, but there are still older houses in which the paint remains, and it is the presence of this paint that plays a part in both the NAACP lawsuit and the incidence of lead poisoning.

"This is an entirely preventable disease," said NAACP President and CEO Kweisi Mfume in a statement. "We are prepared to litigate as long as it might take against the lead paint industry to bring about real and lasting judicial remedies to the problem."

NAACP spokeswoman Jeri Jones said, "Mr. Mfume wants to go after the lead paint industry," but could not say when the suit might be filed.

Jones called the matter "a civil rights issue that affects children nationwide, and it crosses racial and economic boundaries," citing claims that lead paint poisoning harms a child's ability to learn.

The NAACP also claims that victims of childhood lead poisoning can become violent when they grow to adulthood and end up in the criminal justice system.

It has been illegal to make or sell lead-based paint in the U.S. for more than 20 years following the Consumer Product Safety Commission's ban on lead paint in 1978, and the paint industry "essentially discontinued the use of lead pigments in consumer paints, switching to superior substitutes" as early as the 1940s, according to the National Paint and Coatings Association (NPCA), a trade association for the paint industry.

"We hope that the NAACP's publicly expressed interest in this issue will allow us to place less emphasis on litigation and [will] lead to greater cooperation among the many groups, including our industry, who have been working to help avert children's exposure to lead in their environment." said NPCA President Andy Doyle.

The paint industry has worked for several years to educate consumers about the potential hazards of old paint and how problems involving it can be reduced or eliminated, using bilingual literature distributed in "at-risk" communities and the NPCA Internet website.

'Discrimination' or Junk Science?

The National Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning agrees with the NAACP's claims that African American children are more likely to be adversely affected by childhood lead poisoning, citing a study performed by the Centers for Disease Control between 1991 and 1994.

"The black child is something like four to five times as likely to have lead poisoning (compared to a white child), so it's going to be a 450% greater chance to have lead poisoning," said Ralph Scott, spokesman for the alliance.

He attributes the higher incidences of lead poisoning among black children to economics, saying African Americans do not have the same housing choices as whites because of what he called "continued discrimination," and are more exposed to lead-based paint.

According to Scott, it is this "discrimination" that makes lead poisoning a bigger problem for black children than non-black children.

But not all scholars agree with the NAACP's contention that childhood lead poisoning among African-American children is caused by the ingestion of lead paint alone.

Steve Milloy, an adjunct scholar with the CATO Institute and proprietor of the Internet website, thinks the NAACP lawsuit fails to account for other possible causes of high lead levels among African American children.

"It is probably true that they have higher levels of lead, but it is junk-science that it is harming them," said Milloy. "They tend to live in urban areas, where there are higher levels of lead in the environment in general."

He argues that his research has shown that most of the children who might be covered by the NAACP lawsuit have lead levels in their blood between 10 and 20 micrograms per deciliter, which are far below levels that the American Academy of Pediatrics considers toxic.

According to Milloy, doctors do not recommend treating patients until they have a blood lead level of 45 micrograms per deciliter.

He also questions the motives behind the NAACP lawsuit. "This is all about money," Milloy said. "They are trying to shake down the paint industry, and what will happen is that they are hoping that the paint industry will want to settle with them."