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Mfume Calls Lead Paint Poisoning

"The Silent Epidemic"

NAACP Press Release 17jul01

New Orleans  --  Kweisi Mfume, President & CEO, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, (NAACP) today called on the federal government and the lead paint industry to take the actions necessary to end lead paint poisoning of children, calling it a civil rights issue that affects children of all races, ethnic backgrounds and income levels.

Mfume said: "This is an entirely preventable disease. We call on this president and this Congress to take federal action by withholding monies to states that are not complying and following through on basic requirements under the Medicaid Bill and the Medicaid funding that they get. Our actions are not just against the industry but also against states that are violating and have violated federal policy and cities that are violating state policy."

Ruth Ann Norton, Executive Director, of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, said: "Lead is a neurotoxin that damages the reading and reasoning ability of children. Children who are poisoned by lead are seven times more likely to drop out of school but they also have a preponderance to be more violent, to have Attention Deficit Disorder, to have hearing loss and therefore they have a handicap of being able to compete fairly. "

Mfume added, "We are prepared to litigate as long as it might take against the lead paint industry to bring about real and lasting judicial remedies to this problem. The industry has known for a long time the negative aspects of lead based paint. The industry has to have some liability and some conscious."

Mfume said he will write to President George W. Bush next week to discuss lead paint, as well as other issues affecting the social justice, health justice and criminal justice of African American and other communities of color and Caucasians who are affected by the same circumstances. Mfume also said he will reach out to the Children's Defense Fund and other advocacy groups to build a coalition to address a crisis he called an "American problem."

Norton added, "If we want to level the playing field for all children, we must do what we can do and prevent childhood lead poisoning. We are delighted that the NAACP has provided national leadership on this issue." Mfume said some lead paint companies have contacted the NAACP requesting an opportunity to discuss the lead paint issue. Mfume did not announce a date for the filing of a class action lawsuit but said he would invite cities to join the NAACP in this litigation.

"This is not just an advocacy issue on behalf of the NAACP, but these are really people, children and their families that are affected. Lead paint companies ought to be knocking on doors saying 'What can we do about this?' But instead, their silence is deafening." added Mfume. Founded in 1909, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is the nation's oldest and largest civil rights organization. Its half-million adult and youth members throughout the United States and the world are the premier advocates for civil rights in their communities, conducting voter mobilization and monitoring equal opportunity in the public and private sectors.

From equal access to environmental justice

Kris Axtman / Christian Science Monitor 17jul01

The NAACP's plan to sue the lead-paint industry is one example of civil rights shift.

The civil rights movement is a long way from the days of lunch-counter sit-ins and bus boycotts in the 1950s and 60s. No longer is the country torn apart over allowing African-Americans to drink from "white" water fountains and swim in community pools.

Today's fights for equality are more subtle - like where to site incinerators, racial disparities in prisons, or who is affected by toxic paint in their homes.

This week, at its national conference in New Orleans, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People announced plans to sue the lead-paint industry. Calling exposure to lead-based paint a "civil rights issue," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume stressed the importance of equal access to a safe environment.

While Mr. Mfume acknowledged that the toxic paint is not just a black problem but "is everywhere these houses [with lead-based paint] exist," the reality is that low-income and African-American children are far more likely than others to live in such a home.

The NAACP's involvement in the lead-paint fight is a striking example of how the civil rights agenda has evolved. After the struggle for desegregation, the movement turned its attention toward economic equality. Now, activists are joining the fight for environmental justice.

"The original civil rights movement was about the right to sit at a lunch counter and order a hamburger. In the '70s and '80s, it was about being able to afford to buy that hamburger. And now, it's about not dying from the stuff that's in the hamburger," says Christian Warren, a history professor at the University of Georgia in Athens who recently finished a book entitled "Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning."

Lead-based paint was used widely in American homes until the federal government finally banned it in 1978. The industry adamantly denies that it had any knowledge of the risks associated with the metal, but activists claim paint manufacturers knew as early as the 1930s that it posed serious health risks.

Who is exposed?

Today, some 40 percent of homes still have some lead-based paint in them. But low-income children are eight times more likely to live in older homes and apartments where lead paint causes a problem, and African-American children are five times more likely than Anglo children to suffer from lead poisoning (caused by inhaling paint flakes and dust), according to the Center for Disease Control.

The fight over lead paint is not new. Middle-class white groups have been fighting these kinds of environmental issues for years.

But African-Americans needed to gain social equality and economic stability before they could begin to tackle more subtle issues such as environmental and criminal justice, experts say.

Economic changes first

"That's why these kind of issues resonate with blacks today so much more than they did 10, 15, 20 years ago," says Jack Davis, a civil and environmental-rights historian at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "As wealth among African-Americans grows and more and more of them move into the middle class, they can afford to pay attention to these sorts of issues."

Last year, the federal government made it a goal to eradicate the lead-paint problem by 2010. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that it would cost $500 billion to remove lead paint from the 38 million homes currently affected. So the real question is, who will pay for the extensive work: taxpayers, property owners, or the paint manufacturers?

The fight over lead paint has been tried on many levels and with limited success. The most recent tactics are similar to the latest tobacco litigation.

Many municipal or state governments have filed lawsuits against the manufacturers claiming that the malfeasance is forcing them to pay large amounts of money to restore contaminated homes and educate children with special education needs. Some lawsuits are moving through the courts, others have been thrown out.

But calling it a civil rights issue takes the battle a step further and onto different legal ground. Advocates see the NAACP's interest in lead-paint lawsuits as quite encouraging.

"It's tremendously important for them to get involved," says Don Ryan, executive director of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning in Washington. "It's a reminder that low income and African-American children are at many, many times a greater risk."

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