David Rosner: Spars with lawyer over lead paint in Rhode Island court trialHistorians in the News
A paint company lawyer barraged Columbia University historian David Rosner yesterday with documents showing that the federal government specified the use of lead-based paints on schools and other public buildings for much of the last century.
Lawyer Donald Scott also presented a pile of articles from The Providence Journal and other publications in which doctors repeatedly blamed lead-poisoning cases on children gnawing on cribs and toys, rather than paints wearing off houses.
It was the second day of cross-examination of Rosner, one of the key witnesses in the state's effort to prove the paint companies created a public nuisance by making and marketing lead-based paints two generations ago that continue to poison young children in Rhode Island.
Rosner contends the companies marketed the paints without any health warnings even though they knew the paints were highly toxic.
Scott tried to show that the dangers of lead-based paints weren't as obvious in the first half of the last century as they are now.
While Rosner agreed with many of Scott's points, he sparred politely with Scott all day and used every opportunity to insist that the dangers of lead paints were well known for many years and should have been avoided.
Scott presented several articles published in The Providence Journal in the 1930s and 1940s by D.L. Richardson, superintendent of Providence City Hospital (later known as Charles Chapin Memorial Hospital and now part of the Providence College campus).
The articles said children were being lead-poisoned by gnawing on beds or on lead shields used by nursing mothers.
A wire service article published in The Providence Journal in 1953 described several children around the country dying from lead poisoning after chewing on painted surfaces.
Scott asked Rosner if he understood that the medical community at the time believed that eating non-food items, or pica, was the primary source of lead poisoning.
Rosner said he wasn't sure what doctors thought then. But he knew that pica was never a problem unless the item being chewed was covered with lead paint.
Scott also got Rosner to concede that while health and safety warnings are commonplace now on many consumer items, they were all but unknown on products decades ago.
But Rosner quickly added: "No other consumer products were quite as dangerous and had such a long history of knowledge about their dangers."
Citing a copy of a deposition Rosner gave last summer, Scott said Rosner testified that paint companies did warn consumers about the dangers of lead and he wondered if he was now changing his story.
No, Rosner said. That deposition addressed an advertisement taken out by a company selling lead-free paints. The paint companies that didn't use lead publicly chastised those that did to get a competitive advantage, Rosner said. The companies selling lead-based paints never published warnings.
Scott presented a study in Baltimore showing hundreds of cases of lead poisoning, mostly confined to blighted properties.
"Would you agree that the focus was now shifting from eating cribs and toys to deteriorating paint" on houses? Scott asked.
No, Rosner responded. The dangers on houses had been known for decades. Now it was just being observed "on a massive scale."
Scott showed Rosner another story that ran in The Providence Journal on Nov. 11, 1951, about a new law restricting interior use of lead paints in Baltimore. Scott asked Rosner if he would accept that the law was widely publicized.
No, Rosner said. The story just showed that the "cat was out of the bag."
Scott asked Rosner what he meant by that. The historian responded: "By 1951, the cat was out of the bag -- the knowledge that lead was poisoning children for more than 50 years."
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