Doctor says lead paint knowledge has changed 'radically'

By Ann Maher | Aug 20, 2013

SAN JOSE, Calif. (Legal Newsline) - Defense witness Dr. Peter English, testifying in the sixth week of a public nuisance trial under way in Santa Clara County Superior Court, said that knowledge of the risks of lead paint evolved in the 20th century -- and changed "radically" in the 1970s.

He said that research helped informed the opinions of public health officials, namely the U.S. Surgeon General, as well as Congress which passed the Lead-Based Poisoning Prevention Act in 1971.

English, a pediatrician and retained expert on California's lead paint public health history, rejected the plaintiffs' theory that paint companies promoted the use of white lead pigments in residences up until approximately 1940, knowing that it would create a public nuisance today. He said that was "inconceivable."

Under questioning from NL Industries attorney Don Scott, English testified that lead-based paint came to be used on interior walls and surfaces in the early decades of the 20th century as a scientific idea to help prevent the spread of infectious diseases. It was thought that bacteria could reside in the nooks and crannies of wallpaper - what was commonly applied on interior walls before the use of paint. Lead paint was also favored and in demand because it was washable and durable, he said. In addition, public officials recommended its use, according to English.

Use of lead-based paint ended in the early part of the 1940s, mainly because of the nation's war efforts, but it was not until 1951 when public health officials advised against its use based upon research conducted in Baltimore.

On cross examination, plaintiffs' attorney Joe Cochette asked English if a book he had authored on the history of lead paint was influenced by a firm working on behalf of a paint manufacturer.

English responded that the idea for the book was his own.

Cochette also asked English about the lead paint industry's knowledge of the risks of lead paint, to which English responded that he had not conducted that type of research.

Another defense witness, Dr. David Garabrant disputed findings of researcher and previous plaintiff witness Dr. Bruce Lanphear who pooled analyses of effects of lead paint exposure on intelligence.

Garabrant, who was questioned by Sherwin Williams attorney Paul Pohl, is professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Michigan.

"This was sloppy work," Garabrant said.

He said Lanphear's work had errors, inconsistencies and was not reliable. His work did not support a conclusion that blood lead levels under 10 micrograms per deciliter impact IQ, he said.

The body of work also failed to report what Lanphear set out to study, he said.

Garabrant said that if Lanphear had turned the study in as a graduate student, "I would not graduate him."

English testified on behalf of paint manufacturer defendants being sued by 10 cities and counties in California - including Los Angeles County and the cities of San Diego and San Francisco. The People of California v. Atlantic Richfield Company et al. seeks monetary damages -- estimated to exceed $1.2 billion- -- from the companies and parent companies of one-time lead-based paint makers for an abatement program that would eliminate lead paint from homes in their jurisdictions - to protect public health.

Public buildings, including schools, are exempted from the litigation, which focuses solely on residential properties.

Defendants include The Sherwin-Williams Company, ConAgra Grocery Products, DuPont and Atlantic Richfield Company.

English said that accepted blood lead level standards set forth by public health officials have gone from 60 micrograms per deciliter in 1970; to 40 in 1972; to 25 in 1985 and to 10 in 1991.

The defense has argued that blood lead levels are at historic lows in California - close to zero -and lower than national levels.

The trial under way in Judge James Kleinberg's court in Santa Clara County started July 15 and could extend past Labor Day, with closing arguments expected at the end of September.

Kleinberg would have 90 days to make a ruling.

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