Passaic sues paint companies over lead

 By JENNIFER V. HUGHES Staff Writer / The Record

Joining the ranks of cities like Newark and the state of Rhode Island, Passaic and Mayor Sammy Rivera filed suit Wednesday against companies in the lead and paint industry, seeking money to remove lead in buildings in the city. 

The lawsuit also charges that paint manufacturers knew the dangers of their product early on, but did nothing. "There is a problem out there, and the only person who hasn't come to the table is the lead paint manufacturer," lawyer Jon Gelman said. "The government, homeowners, insurance companies, parents . . . they're all sitting there with an empty chair. It's time the problem was resolved." 

Newark filed its lawsuit this month, and nationwide more than a dozen similar lawsuits are pending. Gelman filed similar lawsuits Wednesday on behalf of Bayonne and Hillside. 

The lawsuit cites documents dated as early as one from 1904, in which the paint company Sherwin-Williams published an article warning that white lead is "poisonous in a large degree both for the workmen, and for the inhabitants of a house painted with white lead colors." 

Gelman said the documents came in part from times when paint companies had to respond to earlier lawsuits individual parents with affected children filed against landlords for lead paint problems. Children are particularly vulnerable to lead poisoning, which can damage the nervous system, leading to learning disabilities, hyperactivity, hearing loss, or mental retardation. It's most commonly caused by children ingesting or inhaling dust from lead-based paint. 

A state report released this year indicated that 5 percent of children tested from 1999 to 2000 had levels of lead in their blood that may cause problems. In Passaic County, that figure was 6.7 percent of children. 

The lawsuit names the Lead Industries Assn., a non-profit trade group, as well as chemical companies that include Du Pont and American Cyanamid, and Sherwin-Williams. Calls to the association were referred to lawyer Tim Hardy, who represents another defendant, NL Industries. Hardy said paint manufacturers themselves removed lead from their product in 1955 -- well before the ingredient was banned nationwide in 1978. 

"We are quite upset that once again, plaintiff's lawyers are falsely accusing the wrong persons for the problems of poorly maintained housing in New Jersey," he said. 

"The problem today is not the lead paint on the walls, it's that the landlords have failed to maintain the buildings, and the government has failed to make sure the landlords do their job," he said. "That's a 45-year period when the landlords and the government have not been fulfilling their responsibility." 

Lead was added to paint as a way to make it durable on walls and surfaces. Part of the lawsuit also charges that the defendants made it appear as if lead was safe, and it referred to several articles in trade publications about health benefits. As for that argument, Hardy said it was true at the time. 

"In the 1920s the biggest public health problem was germs," he said. Health organizations touted lead paint as a way to make walls easier to clean, helping prevent the spread of disease, he said. Furthermore, Hardy said that in the past 15 years, about 45 lawsuits have been brought -- by individual plaintiffs and governments -- and that the paint industry has not lost yet. 

Gelman said he expects the lead and paint industry to be forced to admit liability in the same way that cigarette companies have. Gelman said the city has standing to file the lawsuit under the theory of public nuisance -- a tactic used by many cities to sue gun manufacturers. 

Rivera did not return calls seeking comment.