SAN JOSE — Even after three decades, lead-based paint in California homes still presents serious health risks to children, two public health experts testified Thursday at the bench trial of several former makers of lead paint.
Plaintiffs lawyers representing 10 cities and counties across the state wanted their witnesses to show Santa Clara Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg one crucial point: lead paint currently poses a widespread and severe threat to their residents.
But defense lawyers, who contend lead paint in older residences no longer poses a threat, did not let the experts' data go unchallenged. Their questioning focused on the decline in lead exposure and other possible causes of lead poisoning, including candy and even chocolate-covered Mexican grasshoppers.
In People v. The Atlantic Richfield Co., California municipalities accuse five companies of creating a public nuisance by selling paint that contained lead, despite knowing of the health risks. The governments want Kleinberg to order ARCO, ConAgra Grocery Products Co., E.I. du Pont de Nemours and Co., NL Industries Inc. and The Sherwin-Williams Co. to pay the cost of the clean-up.
Similar suits have failed in seven other states, and no defendant has so far been ordered to pay clean-up costs. The trial involving the claims of Santa Clara and Los Angeles counties, San Francisco, Oakland and other California jurisdictions is expected to continue into August.
Government attorneys trying the case in cooperation with Burlingame's Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy hope to derive much of their proof from the testimony of Perry Gottesfeld, a lead abatement specialist, and L.A. County public health official Dr. Cyrus Rangan.
Because lead paint, which was banned in the 1970s, is most likely to be found in older homes and low-income neighborhoods, poor and minority families are more likely to be impacted, the two experts said.
Houses with lead paint are 10 times more likely to have levels of lead dust above federal housing guidelines, Gottesfeld testified on direct examination. And Dr. Rangan said that 6,500 children under 6 in Los Angeles County tested for elevated blood lead levels in 2010. Solo practitioner Mary Alexander and Los Angeles Deputy County Counsel Andrea Ross handled direct examination.
Under cross examination, however, both men conceded that lead exposure seems to have fallen dramatically since the toxin was phased out of paint by federal law.
After Rangan referenced thousands of children with high lead levels, Sherwin-Williams lawyer Paul "Mickey" Pohl, a partner at Jones Day, countered: "What's the population of Los Angeles County?"
Eleven million, the doctor responded.
"How many are kids under the age of 6?" Pohl asked.
Jones Day S.F. partner Robert Mittelstaedt, who cross-examined Gottesfeld, sparred with the witness until Kleinberg interjected.
"It sounds like you're taking something out of context," Gottesfeld said during one tense exchange.
"Don't try to figure out where I'm headed with this," Mittelstaedt responded.
Then Kleinberg stepped in. "I'd like to figure out where you're headed," the judge said. "That question doesn't make any sense to me."