The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution

The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution

"... The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution": Taking Action in a Landmark Case Against the Lead-Paint Industry

Monday, April 24, 2006

Action Plan

What's the Topic?

Our team conducted research for Dr. David Rosner, the Director of History and Ethics of Public Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health. The reason for this research is what turned out to be a landmark court case in Rhode Island. In this case, the state sued four companies that used to manufacture lead paint for creating a public nuisance by neglecting to properly warn the public of the potential harm of their products. Because of the companies’ negligence, the state claims, many people suffered from lead poisoning after being exposed to lead paint. The project focused on this case because the problem of lead paint was a public health issue that placed millions of consumers at risk. Lead paint served as a consistent and constant source of income for lead companies, which owned the paint companies involved, so the companies were adamant about removing the lead from their products. Our team researched the history of warning labels and the manufacturers’ role in warning the public about potentially harmful substances. The information gathered through this research may be valuable as evidence in future cases in which Dr. Rosner, or others, will testify. This information shows that the companies did not fulfill their responsibilities to properly warn the public about the potential health hazards associated with their products.

Why Does This Matter?

It was very exciting work with Dr. Rosner. The outcome of the case in Rhode Island could set the stage for other states to bring similar suits. Dr. Rosner played an important role in the case as a witness, so working with him was a very valuable experience. It was important to our team to be involved in this research because the companies that manufactured lead paint harmed many children and could have avoided doing so by properly communicating with the public. The information we gathered will shed light on the companies’ responsibilities at the time and will hopefully assure that other potentially harmful products are properly labeled in the future. A ruling in favor of the state will draw attention to the importance of assuring consumer safety. One of the members of our team, Rebecca Levine, is a Rhode Island resident, so she has been particularly interested in this case because she has been following it since it began.

What's the scope of the problem?

The use of lead paint in America presented a significant hazard to the general public. The presence of this material in the environment left children vulnerable to lead poisoning by consuming the paint. Had the companies that manufactured the paint properly labeled their products and made the public aware of the products’ potential hazards, Americans would have been less likely to use them and fewer people would have suffered. Until the late 1970s, lead paint was commonly used to paint building interiors and exteriors, and some of this paint is still present in buildings across the country. Lead paint that is allowed to deteriorate creates a hazard by contaminating household dust as well as bare soil around the house, where children may play. Even lead paint that appears intact can leave dust particles when a window or a door covered with this substance is opened or shut. Children may consume the lead paint particles through hand-to-mouth activity, with even the lead dust equivalent of a single grain of salt registering an elevated blood lead level. For children, even very low levels of exposure can result in reduced IQ, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorders, behavioral problems, stunted growth, impaired hearing, and kidney damage. At high levels of exposure, a child may become mentally retarded, fall into a coma, and even die. In adults, lead can increase blood pressure and cause fertility problems, nerve disorders, muscle and joint pain, irritability, and memory or concentration problems (

What's the Focal Point of the Problem?

The project focused on the Rhode Island case because the problem of lead paint was a public health issue that placed millions of consumers at risk. Lead paint served as a consistent and constant source of income for lead companies, which owned the paint companies involved, so the companies were adamant about removing the lead from their products.

What is Being Done?

On February 1, 2006, our team had our first meeting with Dr. Rosner. At our meeting, he told us the history of his involvement in the Rhode Island lead-based paint case and where his research has led him since that time. What began as an intellectual query has become a 20 year project to study areas relating to occupational and environmental health in the United States. Dr. Rosner and his colleagues wanted to uncover information dealing with these subjects. Through writing books about diseases such as silicosis and vinyl chloride poisoning, they uncovered a valuable narrative history. As a result, Dr. Rosner became involved in court cases as an expert witness. Through the legal process of discovery, he was able to use internal records to write a history of industries and the undisclosed information that they have kept hidden. In 1999, the state of Rhode Island sued the lead industry for $2 billion dollars. The case allowed Dr. Rosner and Gerald Markowitz access to internal documents, which led to the book Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution (University of California Press, 2002) in which they examine the lead and chemical industries and their knowledge of poisoning throughout history. This project began as a historical search, but has become a mission to uncover the truth; our place is to try and work with Dr. Rosner to achieve this goal.

What Can I Do?

Rhode Island was victorious in the lead paint case, but the criteria for the cleanup of the paint remains unsettled. This marks a significant step towards holding large corporations liable for poisoning consumers. Our place in this quest is to help Dr. Rosner answer the question, “Historically, what were the responsibilities of the industry to let people know the information that they had?” This question guided our examination of past labels. Our team used the information we gathered to understand the development of consumers’ expectations of industry to warn people of products’ potential hazards. Our team traced the evolution of formal mechanisms of warnings and directions and how they emerged as industry grew over the 20th century. Dr. Rosner believes that legal history is a valuable tool that can be used to correspond to the broader social history over the course of the 20th century. Warnings most likely emerged out of personal relationships between storekeepers and then began to serve as protection from liability.

What Will the Product Be?

At the beginning of the project, our team began working with Dr. Rosner to do research on the history of labeling and label laws. We began by compiling a bibliography, a list of relevant cases, and information to determine when large industries began to assume a sense of responsibility. We also researched newspapers to find old articles in order to find the rise in consumer awareness regarding the paint’s potential harm. This research proved valuable in uncovering the way in which industries began to view unskilled workers as disposable. Researching the history of labels and labeling allowed us to create a timeline of industries’ taking responsibility for placing warning labels on their products. One of our main goals was to assist Dr. Rosner pursue his question about manufacturers’ obligations to the general public. Dr. Rosner was very enthusiastic in having our team work with him, as he stated: “You do wonder how they (industry) rationalize their actions.” Who knows what information industry has been keeping from the public in order to avoid taking responsibility. Overall, it was our mission to assist Dr. Rosner in his journey for justice.

Who Will the Audience Be?

The issues surrounding the lead-paint case in Rhode Island are extremely relevant to a very diverse group of people, and we hope that our research reaches as many people as possible. Hopefully, we will be able to raise awareness regarding the issues that have come up as a result of the trial and Dr. Rosner’s research. Because the state of Rhode Island brought the lawsuit, Rhode Island residents are probably the most interested in our research on the history of liability and the responsibility of industries to warn the public of possible hazards associated with their products. However, consumers across the country may become concerned as this case becomes more publicized and other states pick up similar suits. In addition, we would like to reach law offices and others who may be involved in future cases that are similar to the Rhode Island case. Both children and workers will benefit from the research we will be doing, since the industries involved in the production of hazardous materials will also be affected.

What is the Purpose?

The main purpose of our project was assisting Dr. Rosner with all of his work relating to the Rhode Island case, specifically in his research on the history of warning labels and how this legal history corresponds to a broader social history. Through this research we aimed to shed light upon manufacturers’ responsibilities to protect the environment and the health of their consumers. The effect of the lead paint on the children of Rhode Island is devastating. Through our research, we hope to prevent such tragedies in the future. Our goal is to make a difference in the world of environmental ethics while receiving excellent experience in legal work and environmental policy. The issue of responsibility of manufacturers in producing safe products and warning consumers of any possible dangers is an issue that affects all kinds of people. Creating awareness and ensuring that manufacturers are held to a higher level of responsibility to distribute safe products to their costumers is an important aspect of our project. The research we have done will assist Dr. Rosner and others like him acquire a wealth of information that can be used in future cases. This work will move towards protecting the health and safety of the general public and assuring a safer social environment.

Who is Interested?

Many people were involved and interested in this case and the work that we conducted on researching the history of warning labels and the expectations of companies involving warning labels. Dr. Rosner was extremely interested and actively involved in this project. It goes without saying that he himself has done a great deal of research on the topic and has guided us in our research. The law school provided us with an excellent base for support, as there is an amazing library full of legal literature and plenty of resource librarians, law professors, and law students that gave us insights and tips on legal research. It was our mission to make this stewardship project bring about a meaningful change. By providing Dr. Rosner with the research assistance that he needed, we wish to help save lives and to prevent any future loss of life from occupational and environmental health hazards.


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