Lead paint poisons family's first-home happiness $2 million lawsuit targets sellers, bank


LEONARDTOWN -- Like most couples buying their first home, Christian and Melissa Solms envisioned their white frame house on Washington Street as a haven for their family. Instead, it poisoned their daughter and left her with possible brain damage.

The terrifying discovery that dust from lead-based paint had attacked little Carolina's nervous system came four months after they moved in. Other numbing revelations followed.

The county health department said the family would have to move out until workers were hired to remove the paint. Then contractors reported that making the sprawling six-bedroom house safe would cost at least $50,000, probably more. The Solmses didn't have it.

Two years after leaving their home on Washington Street for a rental unit nearby, Mr. and Mrs. Solms will be in St. Mary's County Circuit Court next month pressing their lawsuit against everyone involved in the sale, including Cardinal James A. Hickey, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Washington. They argue that they should have been warned of the dangerous paint in the house, once a convent, before they bought it from the church.

"We were so happy in that house, and then all of a sudden we were confronted with this horror," Mrs. Solms said recently. "As first-time homebuyers, I don't think that we were the ones who were supposed to know about this."

The case -- which could have ramifications for home buyers, sellers, real estate agents and lenders throughout the state -- comes at a time when there is new evidence that lead-based paint is a serious problem not only in crumbling, inner-city tenements, but also in many middle-class homes.

In its first nationwide assessment of the problem, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported in December that 74 percent of U.S. homes built before 1980 contain toxic lead-based paint somewhere on the interior, the exterior, or both. The paint was banned for most uses in the United States in 1977, so houses and apartments built before then are most at risk.

The department's conclusions about the number of homes where the paint poses a significant hazard were particularly alarming. The agency found that one in four housing units built before 1980 and occupied by young children contains lead-based paint that is chipping or causing the high dust levels associated with lead poisoning. Nearly 40 percent of these hazardous dwellings are occupied by homeowners earning more than $30,000 a year.

While many people may still associate lead poisoning with chips of paint eaten by children in dilapidated buildings, researchers have concluded that dust from the aging paint is a far more common danger. The opening and closing of old windows, even in homes otherwise in good repair, can free dust from layers of paint applied years before.

The dust is particularly dangerous for young children because they can be harmed by very small amounts of lead and because they are more likely than adults to ingest it; dust that lands on a toddler's hands or toys probably will wind up in his mouth.

Researchers also have found that lead can cause learning disabilities and other neurological damage in amounts far smaller than once were considered a danger.

Over the past two decades, the federal government has steadily lowered its standard for the amount of lead in a child's blood that should trigger concern. The Centers for Disease Control currently use the figure of 25 micrograms per deciliter of blood, but that is expected to be revised further downward, to 15 micrograms or lower, before the end of this year.

State lead poisoning prevention officials say it is likely that thousands of children in Maryland have blood levels warranting concern and their parents do not know it. Pediatricians in Maryland are not required to screen for lead. Doctors treating children from low-income families routinely order the tests, but many other pediatricians don't.

Because the neurological damage caused by lead poisoning cannot be reversed, many experts on the problem say they wouldn't consider moving into a home without determining whether it contained lead paint and, if so, whether removal or other treatment was warranted. But only one state, Massachusetts, has passed legislation expressly requiring that potential buyers of housing be warned that it may contain lead paint and that such paint can be harmful to children.

Mr. and Mrs. Solms will attempt through their lawyers to prove there was nonetheless an obligation under various Maryland laws for professionals involved in selling the house to warn of its danger. Their argument rests largely on a claim that people who make a living through real estate sales had to have known that the 60-year-old house was infested with lead paint.

They have cited, in part, a Maryland real estate rule requiring sales agents to disclose to potential buyers any "material fact" about a property.

"This house was so toxic that it was unsafe to live in it. That is a very material fact," said Bernard T. Levin, one of the couple's attorneys.

Notably, Mr. Levin and his colleagues have not set out to persuade a jury in this highly Catholic county that Cardinal Hickey, who owned the property on behalf of the archdiocese and had to approve the sale, knew about the lead paint. But they are arguing that the church is responsible for paying more than $100,000 to cover the cost of the lead abatement and other expenses the family has incurred.

They are seeking $2 million in punitive damages from the sales agent hired by the church, her real estate firm, the bank that issued the mortgage and its appraiser, arguing that all withheld information about the presence of the paint in an attempt to expedite the sale.

The defendants vigorously deny those allegations and argue that the Solmses themselves bore the responsibility for investigating a building that would be home to their children. In court documents, lawyers for the cardinal have said he did not know about the paint and that the church should not be liable. The bank argues that no one could have known there was lead in the house without testing and that it was up to the buyers, not their lender, to arrange such tests.

And the sales agent, Judith M. O'Brien, of Leonardtown, has pointed out that the Solmses signed a contract stating they were buying the house "as is" and had inspected it to their satisfaction. In court documents, she also maintains that Mrs. Solms herself asked whether the house might contain lead paint, was told that all older homes should be suspect, and nonetheless rejected an opportunity to have the building tested. Mrs. Solms denies that that conversation took place.

While it will be up to a jury to decide who said what when the case goes to trial April 30, a judge will have to determine whether Maryland law holds the protections the Solmses claim. A ruling either way would not be binding on other judges, but if appealed could result in a higher court decision that would be followed throughout the state.

In the meantime, families concerned about lead can get their homes tested by roughly a dozen firms in Maryland, but they may have trouble deciding what to do about the results. There is widespread agreement that buildings with flaking lead paint inside or outside pose a clear hazard to children, as do homes with high levels of leaded dust inside. But there are no state or federal standards offering a threshold at which the dust should be considered unsafe.

The Massachusetts lead paint law, the most sweeping in the nation, uses a definition of danger that does not mention dust. The paint is regarded as hazardous if it is on virtually any part of a window frame; is on doors, window sills or other surfaces that TC child could easily bite; or is peeling or chipping on any surface, interior or exterior. Paint meeting any of those conditions must be removed, or sealed with an approved covering, in buildings housing children under 6.

Because many homes have lead paint on the woodwork but not on walls, Massachusetts officials say dealing with the problem often involves replacing old windows and taking down doors and other woodwork so they can be stripped and reinstalled. The cost of eliminating the hazard on homes needing both interior and exterior work averages $8,000 to $11,000, according to federal officials. Large homes can cost much more.

Maryland property owners considering such work can get the names of firms with workers who have met state training requirements from the state Department of the Environment. State officials say it is critical that all family members move out of the home while the work is being done and that they not return until an inspector from the agency has checked the building.

State officials also warn that methods once thought safe for removing the paint -- burning or sanding it off -- are now known to be dangerous because of the dust they release, and using those techniques is prohibited in Maryland. And officials caution that any remodeling or painting project that disturbs lead paint will leave a home infested with the toxic dust unless the work is done properly.

Mr. and Mrs. Solms realize now that work they did on their home during the summer and fall of 1988 made it a more dangerous place.

They hired a friend to sand and prime the exterior, where the paint was peeling badly. Mr. Solms helped with the sanding when he wasn't at work at his lumber business while Mrs. Solms watched the children. The interior walls were generally sound, but Mrs. Solms started to sand some woodwork in anticipation of new color schemes. Carolina was then about 18 months old. Her sister Oda was 6.

Mr. and Mrs. Solms say they were oblivious to the danger until they received a letter from their pediatrician that set in motion the discovery that has changed their lives. It said there were possible problems in the results of a test he ordered for Carolina and he suggested that the test be done again. The couple soon learned that while Oda was all right, the lead inCarolina's blood system measured 27 micrograms per deciliter, a clear indication of lead poisoning.

The Solmses are encouraged that that figure has fallen, as expected, in the months since the family moved out of the house.

But they also know that the amount of lead Carolina ingested has been shown to cause reduced intelligence and other learning disabilities in many children. They can only watch her development over the years to see if Carolina is one of them.

About lead paint . . .

Information about lead paint, its danger to children and adults and methods of alleviating the hazard in housing is available from the Maryland Department of the Environment's Division of Lead Poisoning Prevention. Call 631-3859 during business hours.

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