Kennedy Krieger sued over lead paint study

In a class action lawsuit filed Thursday, Kennedy Krieger Institute is accused of exposing poor black children to "dangerous levels" of lead as part of a housing experiment in the 1990s.

The suit, filed Thursday in Baltimore City Circuit Court by attorney Billy Murphy, accuses the instituteof negligence, fraud, battery and violating the state's consumer protection act. It seeks damages, interest and unspecified attorney fees.

The hospital "used these children as known guinea pigs in these contaminated houses to complete this study," the suit states. "For this study, KKI selected children and their parents who were predominantly from a lower economic strata and minorities."

Kennedy Krieger officials denied the allegations and said the study benefited public health. The study placed families in homes less contaminated than where they previously lived, and the state's lead paint laws grew from the study's findings, Krieger President and CEO Gary Goldstein said.

"The lawyers have wrongly placed blame on our Institute," Goldstein said in a statement. "This research was conducted in the best interest of all of the children enrolled, and we are confident that this will come to light when the facts are presented."

The class action is the latest in a series of lawsuits filed over the hospital's Lead-Based Paint Abatement and Repair and Maintenance Study that began in 1993.

The study — whose lead author was Mark Farfel, a former associate professor at the Kennedy Krieger Institute and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health — was an attempt to identify an affordable measure that could reduce the danger of lead-paint poisoning faced by children living in old homes. The study focused on more than 100 families who lived in homes that had varying levels of partial lead abatement to determine whether cheaper methods of containing lead would keep the toxin out of children's bodies.

Earlier lawsuits were heard by the Court of Appeals, which ruled that the legal actions could go forward. In its 2001 decision, the court found the researchers failed to warn families that their children faced a health risk if they continued to live in the homes. The court also found that the researchers did not inform the families of the youngsters' elevated blood-lead levels in a timely manner.

Some of the cases were settled confidentially.

In addition to Murphy, Baltimore lawyer Thomas Yost is a plaintiffs' attorney in the suit. The lawyers contend the study lasted six years, while the hospital says it was over by 1995.

At the time, 95 percent of the houses in Baltimore's low-income, high-risk neighborhoods were contaminated by lead paint.

Most of the children involved in the study showed blood lead levels that stayed consistent or went down, but in a few cases, children's lead levels increased, according to the hospital. The study was approved and monitored by the federal government and later replicated in 13 other cities and 1,200 houses.

The study was the basis for a 1996 state law that led to a 93 percent drop in lead-paint poisoning in Baltimore, the hospital said.

"Although much has been misunderstood about it, this study wouldn't have taken place if it wasn't in the best interest of the children," hospital spokeswoman Elise Walker wrote in an email. "… it can be hard today to grasp the gravity of the lead poisoning epidemic that was happening twenty years ago."

No trial date has been set. Murphy's firm did not respond to questions about how many families have signed on to the suit.