Dan Morain

Lead poisons kids. Who should pay to clean it up: You or the companies that profited?

State parks Restoration Work Specialist Victor Bjelajac strips lead-based paint from the window on the third floor of the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento. A California Court of Appeal has ruled that paint companies are liable for lead in houses built before 1950. Sacramento Bee/ Andy Alfaro
State parks Restoration Work Specialist Victor Bjelajac strips lead-based paint from the window on the third floor of the Governor’s Mansion in Sacramento. A California Court of Appeal has ruled that paint companies are liable for lead in houses built before 1950. Sacramento Bee/ Andy Alfaro Sacramento Bee Staff Photo

Based on its name, you’d think The Healthy Homes and Schools Act is written for children, especially poor ones, whose homes and schools are in tough, unhealthy parts of town.

Upon reading it, you would see that The Healthy Homes and Schools Act also would give a hand to our beloved elderly, grandmothers and grandfathers of all the little children. Whose health, and homes and schools are without question the heart of this act.

The people who wrote The Healthy Homes and Schools Act are confident that you, dear voters, have socially conscious hearts and charitable souls, and they are certain you would contribute a tiny fraction of your money to relieve unhealthy homes and schools of a terrible health hazard, poisonous lead, which, after all, can kill poor babies and lower their intelligence.


Less clear is who else might be healthier as a result of The Healthy Homes and Schools Act. But don’t ask too many questions. If you must know, you’d be giving a hand to three large out-of-state corporations.

One, Sherwin-Williams based in Ohio, covers the earth, or so it says. Another, Conagra of Illinois, produces popcorn, pie and hotdogs, though through a merger, its lineage includes Fuller paint. A third goes by the name, NL Industries, of Texas. The “L” used to stand for Lead, but that was long ago.

National Lead was so proud of its ingredients that in 1929, it came up with a promotional rhyme: “This famous Dutch Boy Lead of mine; Can make this playroom fairly shine.” So sweet, so innocent, except that at the time, the hazards of lead were well-documented.

In 2000, 10 California jurisdictions – Alameda, Santa Clara, San Diego and Los Angeles counties, and San Francisco and Oakland, among others – sued several corporations that at one time made lead-based paint. Thirteen years later, Santa Clara Superior Court Judge James P. Kleinberg sided with the jurisdictions, finding that lead in hundreds of thousands of homes built before 1980 was a public nuisance, and directing that the three companies spend the knee-buckling sum of $1.15 billion to fix it.

In November, a California Court of Appeal modified that ruling, concluding the companies were liable for lead in houses built before 1950. Still, the cost would be staggering. If that decision stands, more suits could be coming.

So the corporations did what any smart corporate citizen would do: They came to Sacramento, hired the blue chip lobby firms Aaron Read & Associates and Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Gross & Leoni, and developed a strategy, one that involves you.

The other day, the companies placed $2 million each into an initiative campaign account called Californians for Safe and Affordable Housing, and will soon be setting about qualifying The Healthy Homes and Schools Act for the November ballot.

If the initiative gets to the ballot and voters approve it, we’d all be on the hook for a $2 billion bond to remove “mold, asbestos, radon, water, pests, … and lead” from homes, apartments, schools and senior citizen housing.

The initiative is brazen even by California standards but also clever. It would absolve the companies of liability by declaring that “lead-based paint on or in private or public residential properties, whether considered individually, collectively, or in the aggregate, is not a public nuisance.” It also would apply to any lawsuit “pending on appeal on, or filed after, Nov. 1, 2017,” rendering the Santa Clara case moot.

“They think they can stop me with this crazy initiative,” said Burlingame attorney Joseph Cotchett, who represented the cities and counties against the companies. “It is an end-run and it’s not going to happen.”

Tiffany Moffatt, representing the paint companies, has a different view: “This initiative provides an important public benefit of addressing the state’s housing crisis by increasing the supply of safe and affordable homes that would otherwise be unlivable.”

The Legislature has placed a $4 billion affordable housing bond on the November ballot. Perhaps, paint company lobbyists suggest, the companies would be willing to combine efforts, and ensure that the Legislature’s housing bond has sufficient campaign money to ensure its passage.

Needless to say, if there’s no compromise and if the lawsuit is not resolved, the companies could campaign against the Legislature’s bond and kill it. All of which means lobbyists and lawyers will be spending the next few months sorting out the politics of lead.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 500,000 children have elevated lead levels in their blood. There is no safe level.

Dr. Cyrus Rangan, a pediatrician with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, testified for the plaintiffs in the Santa Clara lawsuit, and says that of all the pediatric environmental health problems, lead is “No. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8.”

Rangan is not sure what the best way is to get rid of it. “I’m a pediatrician. That’s above my pay grade,” he said.

Perhaps a lawsuit holding companies liable for abating lead in 10 jurisdictions is an imperfect solution. But The Healthy Homes and Schools Act is stunningly cynical. While the corporations behind it know a campaign would be costly, it’d be far less than $1.1 billion. What of the children who actually need healthy homes and schools? They can wait.