8 January 2014. Last month, a little-noticed preliminary decision by a state superior court judge in California ordered three lead paint makers to create a fund of $1.1 billion to remove lead exposure hazards in homes painted with white lead and other lead-containing paints. The final decision was issued yesterday. It will benefit children in 10 cities and counties, including Los Angeles, San Diego, and San Francisco. The funds will cover inspections, lead paint removal, and repairs in the homes treated with the hazardous paints.
The court case lasted for 13 years. In the end, the judge (the third one on this case) found the paint makers responsible for creating a public nuisance from marketing and selling lead-containing paints at a time when the hazards were well recognized. In fact, a memo from one of the companies already in 1900 described lead as a “deadly cumulative poison”. As concluded by Judge James P. Kleinberg, the knowledge on lead toxicity “should have caused each Defendant to cease its promotion and sale of lead pigment and/or lead paint for home use. Instead, after becoming aware of the hazards associated with lead paint, they continued to sell it.”
This decision is the first loss so far in about 50 court cases in more than twenty years, where states and municipalities have sued paint makers for expenses relating to past uses of the toxic paints. The state of Rhode Island won a lawsuit in 2006, but lost when the decision was appealed. The industries are expected to fight back and will consider an appeal of the California superior court ruling.
To an outside observer, it seems unconscionable that the makers of a toxic product can escape from covering the expenses from removing it from people’s homes. As part of the defense strategy, the industries claim that lead paint is just one out of several sources of lead exposure, and that any hazard is due to mistaken usage or lack of upkeep. In this defense, industries have sought help from a variety of experts.
Last month also brought sad news about a highly respected researcher, recently deceased. Patricia Buffler was an internationally respected researcher, mostly on the causes of childhood cancer. Professor Buffler was widely admired and served as Dean at the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Buffler was a member of the Institute of Medicine, a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and an honorary member of the American College of Epidemiology. She also served as President of three scientific societies in the field of epidemiology. All of these impressive achievements show how highly respected she was. Yet, a few months after her death last September, some astonishing news emerged.
In the lead paint court case, Dr. Buffler served as expert witness on behalf of the three companies that had marketed the toxic paint. Dr. Buffler argued that lead-based paint in older homes posed little risk to children – a conclusion that was in stark contrast to opinions voiced by colleagues, who had carried out research in the field. At an hourly rate of $600, Dr. Buffler was paid more than $360,000 for her efforts on the case during the last three years. The judge rejected Dr. Buffler’s argument.
Dr. Buffler also consulted for numerous major industries, such as Dow Chemical, DuPont, Union Carbide, Shell Oil, Goodyear, Atlantic Richfield, and others. Dr. Buffler served on the board of directors of FMC Corp., a $3 billion pesticide company. For her work on the board, the company paid her stock, from which she made more than $2 million. Dr. Buffler’s service on the board happened in parallel to her research at Berkeley on the possible effects of pesticide exposures on leukemia risk in children.
Colleagues are stunned by these disclosures. How can a trusted colleague serve as a dean, principal investigator on federal grants, mentor for young colleagues, yet at the same time serve as expert for vested interests raising doubt about her colleagues’ work?
It seems that, when money talks, we better check the grammar.