When a routine blood test in 1995 showed that 2-year-old Reggie Smith was suffering from severe lead poisoning, his mother, Renee Kennedy, was astonished. The family's rented East Baltimore rowhouse had peeling paint and holes in the drywall. But Reggie seemed to be an active, healthy toddler.
"He had no symptoms," said Kennedy, 26, a single mother of three who works as a private-duty nurse. "But they said another week in that house and it could have been life-threatening."
One month in intensive care and another five months in three hospitals saved Reggie from mortal danger. But today, the damage that lead caused is evident. Reggie, now 7 and a second-grader at Harford Heights Elementary School, is in special education classes and has problems controlling his temper, says his mother.
Reggie and his 5-year-old sister, Shatara, who was less severely poisoned, are plaintiffs in one of two major lawsuits, filed last week in Baltimore Circuit Court by attorney Peter G. Angelos, that seek to put the record of the paint and pigment industries on public trial.
The first lawsuit, which also targets makers of additives to leaded gasoline, seeks $15 million in damages on behalf of each of six lead-poisoned children, including Reggie and Shatara Smith. All six children live in Baltimore, where nearly 1 in 3 children surveyed in 1997 had elevated blood lead levels and 1 in 15 suffered from lead poisoning.
The second lawsuit is a class action on behalf of as many as 1 million Maryland homeowners whose houses contain lead-based paint. Though no one has been poisoned in the vast majority of those homes, the suit contends that the presence of lead paint reduces property values and requires spending to control or remove the lead hazard.
Similar litigation converted asbestos and tobacco from topics of health controversy to targets of billion-dollar courtroom battles. Both supporters and critics of Angelos' lead lawsuits, part of a new wave of litigation against the lead industry, say they could have the same impact on lead poisoning.
Advocates for lead-poisoning victims generally welcomed the lawsuits as a spotlight on the problem and a possible source of money to pay for solutions. Some are already on Angelos' team: Two experts on lead poisoning at Kennedy Krieger Institute, Dr. J. Julian Chisolm Jr., who has treated victims for decades, and Mark R. Farfel, an expert on lead paint hazards, declined to comment because they have been retained by the Angelos firm as expert witnesses.
Nick Farr, who heads the National Center for Lead-Safe Housing in Columbia, said: "I would certainly support lawsuits to hold the manufacturers of lead pigment responsible. They knew it was a problem. They didn't warn people. Kids are getting poisoned, and it's an expensive problem to deal with."
Spokesmen for the paint and lead pigment industries say the lead litigation is a cynical attempt to enrich plaintiffs' lawyers in the guise of helping children. The lead pigment manufacturers have geared up for battle, hiring a Washington public relations man, Chris Collins, and distributing fact sheets, including one titled "A Potential Windfall for Lawyers, A Pittance for Children."
Tim Hardy, a Washington attorney representing NL Industries, a lead pigment maker and defendant in the lawsuits, said Angelos' allegation of an industrywide conspiracy to deceive the public is groundless.
"The plaintiffs' lawyers have taken old historical documents and interpreted them incorrectly and out of context to tell a false story," Hardy said. "These companies that are being sued were very responsible companies that cooperated with public health agencies and funded no-strings research at institutions like Harvard and Johns Hopkins."
The National Paint and Coatings Association points to the $1 million in donations and materials its members have given to a 3-year-old lead abatement program, called CLEARCorps, operated by the Shriver Center at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
But such programs are dwarfed by the scale of the problem. Last year, CLEARCorps made 220 houses and apartments lead-safe in Baltimore and four other cities. In Maryland, there are nearly 500,000 houses built before 1950, when lead-based paint was standard.
Neil Leifer, a Boston attorney whose pioneering 1987 federal lawsuit against lead paint makers was thrown out by an appeals court in 1992 said the Angelos suits may stand a better chance of success.
Evidence has been accumulating to show an industry conspiracy to defeat lead paint bans by minimizing the hazard, Leifer said. A number of court rulings nationally have been favorable to lead-paint plaintiffs, and the success of tobacco lawsuits also could influence the new lawsuits, he said.
Ron Richardson and Ted Flerlage, attorneys in the Angelos firm who have worked on the lead cases, said much of the 100-page history of alleged lead industry conduct included in the two lawsuits is based on newly uncovered documents and research.
"We have evidence that no one's ever had before," said Richardson. "We're focusing on the conduct of the industry."
The lawsuits detail a decades-long campaign by the lead pigment industry to fend off restrictions on their product, which was banned in other countries beginning in the 1920s. Much of the history derives from Baltimore, where health officials recognized lead hazards very early.
In 1914, Johns Hopkins Hospital pediatrician Kenneth Blackfan wrote an article on a 5-year-old Baltimore boy who died of lead poisoning after chewing the railing of his painted crib.
By 1935, under Health Commissioner Dr. Huntington Williams, Baltimore became the first city to offer free blood tests to diagnose lead poisoning, finding 57 cases in the next three years, according to the lawsuit.
In 1949, citing 76 deaths of Baltimore children from lead poisoning, Maryland passed a law requiring warning labels on toys and children's furniture coated with lead-based paint. But even that measure proved too much for the industry, and the statute was repealed the next year after intensive lobbying by the Lead Industries Association, the lawsuit says.
In response, Williams, the health commissioner, acted in 1951 to prohibit lead-based paint from use inside homes. The use of residential lead paint across the country gradually declined from the early 1950s until 1978 when a federal ban took effect.
But in 64 million American homes, some lead paint remains. In thousands of houses in poor Baltimore neighborhoods, like the Oliver Street house where Reggie and Shatara Smith were poisoned, flaking lead paint is ground underfoot into dust that can easily be ingested by crawling babies.
"Reggie was always sucking his thumb when he was a baby," said their mother, Renee Kennedy. "The dust was on the floor. It was on his toys. It was in the dirt in the vacant lot next door."
The family lives today in a lead-safe house around the corner from the now-boarded house in which the children were poisoned. But Kennedy says she worries about Reggie's continuing problems.
"I think the case could help us with Reggie's education," she said. "He spent six months of his toddler's life in the hospital. It was frightening for him, and it was certainly frightening for me."
Information: Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, 410-534-6447.