The Poison Kids

Sherwin-Williams knew for decades that its paint was toxic. Cleveland kids now pay the price.

Lead poisoning
It's barely 10 a.m., but James Jackson is already flying. The six-year-old darts from the computer screen to the TV, pounding his fists on the floor, hurling himself into headstands on the couch.

With his tight brown curls and gap-toothed grin, James could be a Flintstones kid. The problem is, he drives people crazy. He got kicked out of his Sunday-school class, and he has a tendency to beat up other kids. Three years ago, he broke out of his house and ran across West 25th Street to play in a gas-station parking lot.

On this July morning, his frenzy is reaching a peak. One second, he's climbing on the couch; the next, he's hanging from the top of the living-room doorway. He drops down and crashes into his mom's legs before collapsing on the floor.

"James, stop jumping!" his mother, Julie Smith, implores. She claps her hands twice.

Suddenly, the boy is quiet. It's as if he just noticed how exhausting he can be. "Are you tired of me yet?" he asks his mom.

This is life with a lead-poisoned child.

When he was 18 months old, James suddenly stopped talking. Then the temper tantrums began. He broke a TV, started attacking his older sister. The doctors didn't know what was wrong. Finally, when he was three, Smith took him to a child psychiatrist, who ran blood tests. James was declared poisoned.

He shares his fate with at least 1,700 children in Cleveland. Young kids generally become afflicted by doing what they do best: putting things into their mouths. In a city of old houses -- where peeling lead paint sheds candy-sized chips, and dust goes from walls and windowsills into children's mouths -- the result is one of the highest rates of lead poisoning in the country.

Though the condition affects everyone differently, learning disabilities, delayed growth, lowered IQs, aggressive behavior, and hyperactivity are the most common woes. In James' case, he has essentially the same characteristics as an autistic child.

His mom can't get him to sit through a simple storybook. No Cleveland public school can handle him. Last year, when there wasn't room in a private kindergarten, Smith attempted -- with little success -- to teach him at home. And things will only get worse.

As he gets older, his impaired attention and aggressive tendencies will make him more likely to drop out of school and get caught up in crime. And if he can't even pay attention to a brief children's book, he won't have an easy time holding down a job.

James' family blames his problems on the paint sold for decades at your neighborhood hardware store -- paint manufactured by companies like Sherwin-Williams, which knew for years that it was poisoning America's kids.

Eighty years ago, lead paint was killing boys like James. Kids who gnawed on their cribs and toys were ending up in hospitals with bleeding gums, seizures, tremors, and convulsions. They fell into comas and eventually died.

In the 1920s, a single Boston hospital saw 50 children poisoned by paint. A decade later, kids who ate chips were showing up in Baltimore hospitals with symptoms that destroyed their minds and left them blind, paralyzed, even dead. Their average age was two and a half.

The mounting casualties attracted attention in high places. In 1930, a government-run newspaper, United States Daily, ran a front-page story stating that "lead poisoning as a result of chewing paint from toys, cradles and woodwork is now regarded as a more frequent occurrence among children." Children's hospitals, it noted, were avoiding use of the paint.

But this was the Depression, and people had far more pressing matters to worry about -- like finding food, work, and shelter. In Baltimore, people were even burning highly toxic battery casings just to generate heat.

At that time, there were no warning labels on lead paint, and unsuspecting parents still used it to repaint old toys. For those who could afford to buy new homes, lead paint was considered the best choice. It was durable, water-resistant, and washable. Which left any concern about toxicity largely confined to a small circle of public-health officials, doctors, and corporate insiders.

That was just fine with the paint companies.

By the late '30s, Sherwin-Williams was a multimillion-dollar corporation. Seven decades after Henry Sherwin, a former grocer and dry-goods clerk, decided to invest in the paint business, the company opened new headquarters on Prospect Avenue and boasted 157 stores. The company's "Cover the Earth" logo -- a can of red paint spilling over the globe -- was starting to come true.

But reports of kids dying from poisoning were not good for business. So Sherwin-Williams and other paint-makers defended themselves as innocent bystanders.

To hear them tell it, discovering the dangers of lead paint was akin to solving a complicated murder mystery, with clues emerging slowly over decades, until the final scope of the problem was revealed.

Sure, their lawyers admit, people have known that lead is poisonous for centuries. But medical studies in the early 1900s focused on the threat of dust and fumes to painters and factory workers, not customers.

It wasn't until the '30s that experts realized that paint was killing children, say the lawyers. So manufacturers immediately stopped making lead paint for toys and cribs. They even put out brochures, warning parents of the risks.

Then, after health experts raised a fuss in the late '40s and '50s about peeling and chipping wall paint, in 1955 Sherwin-Williams and other companies agreed to limit the amount of lead in interior paints. They also started putting labels on cans, warning that the paints shouldn't be used inside and on surfaces reachable by children.

Finally, in the 1970s, the federal government banned lead paint in housing.

Until then, the industry argues, companies like Sherwin-Williams were simply the products of their time. To hold the industry responsible now for unknown sins of the past is unfair, claims Sherwin-Williams lawyer Tony Dias. The blame rests with the inevitably slow progress of science. "We very strongly believe that these claims that are being made about history and about what we've done in the past just have no basis in fact," he says. "The history is being distorted."

Sherwin-Williams has spent more than half a century perfecting this story, polishing it to withstand the harsh light of legal challenges. Lawyers like Dias now recite it with the smooth confidence that comes from two decades of court victories. Until last winter, the industry had yet to lose a lead lawsuit. It doesn't plan to start losing now.

Dias, who has made a name for himself defending embattled companies like Alcoa and Adelphia, contends that lead paint is only dangerous when it isn't maintained. And that's hardly the company's fault. The real culprits are the slumlords who don't keep up their buildings.

"The problem lies in target neighborhoods that have poor and neglected housing," he says. "That should be the primary focus now, of improving that housing."

But the state of Rhode Island has a different take. In its version, Sherwin-Williams comes off more as mustachioed villain than righteous corporate citizen.

Last winter, Rhode Island won a massive suit against Sherwin-Williams and two other companies. The jury found them liable for creating a "public nuisance" that poisoned thousands of children. It ordered the companies to clean up the state's lead-laden homes -- a project estimated to cost more than $3 billion, though the two sides are still fighting over that number in court.

The testimony of public-health experts offered a gut-wrenching, horror-flick version of history, in which thousands of parents unwittingly covered their homes in poison -- and fed it to their children by way of toy soldiers and cribs.

In this story, the villain's role is played by a company that knew its paint was poisonous, but refused to warn its customers for decades.

The tale begins more than a century ago, before Sherwin-Williams bought its first lead factory. In 1904, the company's monthly newsletter included an ominous report about a new fad in paint pigments. "White lead is poisonous to a large degree, both for the workmen and for the inhabitants of a house painted with white lead colors," the article said.

That same year, an Australian study pointed out that painted walls and railings were sources of poisoning. In 1914, at a children's home in Baltimore, a boy died after biting the paint off the railing of his crib. The next decade brought a slew of medical reports linking lead paint to sick kids. Meanwhile, several European countries banned lead in interior paints.

But companies like Sherwin-Williams were still blaming the kids for getting poisoned. They latched onto the medical theory that children who chewed toys and cribs had a special condition called "pica." Never mind that teething children are famous for putting anything in their mouths. By blaming weird kids, the paint industry stayed clean.

"When kids were dying, having convulsions . . . when kids were being counted as bodies, they still continued to sell it," says David Rosner, a Columbia University professor and co-author of Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution.

When they couldn't ignore the reports of dying kids anymore, the paint companies had to do something. But they weren't going to stop selling lead. According to Rosner, there was no special paint for toys. Toy manufacturers ordered whatever paint they wanted, and Sherwin-Williams shipped it to them. The only thing that changed was the paint industry's PR.

In 1930, the Lead Industries Association, a trade group that included Sherwin-Williams, sent a letter to children's furniture manufacturers, asking whether they used lead paint. When a dozen companies replied that they didn't, the paint companies took this as proof that the problem was solved.

It wasn't, of course. Five years later, the U.S. Children's Bureau surveyed toy manufacturers and found that some of them were still using lead paint. And parents were still using it to repaint toys and furniture. Warning labels were desperately needed.

In 1939, the National Paint, Varnish and Lacquer Association sent a confidential memo to members, warning that they should take "every precautionary measure in manufacturing, in selling and in use" of toxic materials. More important, the memo pointed out that "children's toys, equipment, furniture, etc. are not the only consideration."

Armed with such information, it's hard to believe that Sherwin-Williams didn't know that lead posed a threat to children wherever it was used. The early reports of kids being poisoned said they gnawed on windowsills, beds, tables, and chairs, as well as toys and cribs. It didn't take a great leap of imagination to conclude that lead anywhere inside a house was dangerous.

By 1941, Baltimore had seen the writing on the wall. Having found that peeling and chipping paint was a health hazard in slums, the city passed an ordinance requiring the removal of anything in a building that was "dangerous or detrimental to life or health." Two years later, Time magazine published a story about children poisoned by lead.

Despite this mountain of evidence, Sherwin-Williams waited 12 more years to establish voluntary limits for interior paints. But by then, it was a largely meaningless gesture, since most customers had already switched to mixed paints or latex.

But lead was still a profit-maker for use on outside walls, and the paint companies were dead set against warning customers of its dangers.

In the 1950s, the paint association battled proposals in New York, Chicago, and other cities that would require poison labels on cans. The labels were eventually adopted, but they only warned that the paint shouldn't be applied to toys, furniture, or other things that could be chewed by children. There was no skull and cross-bones, no threatening green sticker. They never said the paint was poison.

For most of her life, Alexandra Larson bought into the paint industry's portrait of lead victims as poor children, living in inner-city slums, who ate paint chips because they had bad parents. None of them looked like her kids: blond, blue-eyed, giggly girls who run on hardwood floors in the tree-lined safety of Lakewood, where cramped houses line up an arm's length from one another.

Then Larson's daughter, also named Alexandra, got sick. She wasn't yet two, and she was already making regular trips to the hospital because of asthma. When the Larsons learned that Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital was conducting an asthma and allergy study, they signed Alexandra up. A standard enrollment test screened kids for lead. The next day, the Larsons got a call: Alexandra had more than eight times the amount of lead considered poisonous.

She spent 10 days in the hospital, where doctors used a chemical process to pull the lead of out of her bloodstream. But the damage was done.

Now almost seven and nicknamed "Hobbit," she has a habit of beating her head against windows and walls. She's impulsive and easily falls into depression, imagining that no one likes her. She can count in Spanish, but not English. Her spelling skills don't stretch much further than "cat" and "dog." She had to repeat kindergarten, and it took occupational therapy for her to learn how to hold a pencil.

"I'm really worried about this as she gets older," Larson says.

This was not the fate the Larsons imagined eight years ago, when they moved from California to Lakewood so that Don Larson could get his MBA at Case Western Reserve. They planned to renovate their house, which was built in 1913. But money was tight, and they never got around to it. They didn't even consider lead a danger. Larson thought only kids who ate paint chips could get poisoned. Who knew that dust could be just as bad?

After Alexandra got sick, the Larsons had their house tested and discovered that the lead was coming from paint dust in their dining-room windowsills. Just opening and closing the windows created enough dust to hurt all their children. Alexandra's three sisters, who now range in age from 5 to 11, were poisoned too, though at much lower rates.

The Larsons did everything they could to rid themselves of the problem. They had the entire house abated twice, ripped out the kitchen ceiling when they discovered lead, and now repaint the walls in Alexandra's bedroom constantly to prevent any paint chipping. They also have metal tracks in their window frames to keep dust from accumulating.

But the costs of Alexandra's illness keep piling up. Recently, Larson quit her job, because she didn't want to leave her 11-year-old daughter alone with a younger sister who hit her head against windows. The family now depends on one income to pay the bills. They've stopped taking Alexandra to occupational therapy, because it doesn't fit the budget right now. State-funded health insurance won't even cover it.

For parents whose kids suffer from lead poisoning, this is a familiar refrain: Government health plans tend to be a dead end. Julie Smith says that the state's insurance wouldn't cover the 40 hours a week of behavioral therapy that James needs. Day care for kids with special needs would cost her nearly $1,000 per month.

But aside from the medical costs, taxpayers shoulder much of the burden for battling lead. Cities like Cleveland, where most houses were built before 1950, get special funding for the task. HUD has spent about $9 million in the last decade paying for home renovation here. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dole out another $300,000 a year for inspections of homes where kids have been poisoned.

Yet only a fraction of the 68,000 houses in Cleveland that need repairs have gotten them, according to the city health department. And though state law requires that all kids on Medicaid be tested for lead before they turn three, it doesn't always happen. In 2004, only a third of the city's kids were tested.

"Why aren't we testing every house in the city?" asks Stuart Katzenburg, an organizer in the activist group ACORN. "It's completely unacceptable that this is the methodology."

The screening that has been done produced shocking results. Nearly 20 percent of the children in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods are poisoned. Mary Keith, another ACORN leader and head of the PTO at Giddings Elementary in Fairfax, organized a screening and discovered that most of the school's kids were poisoned.

In the face of such overwhelming numbers, some activists argue that the paint companies, like the tobacco and asbestos industries before them, should be forced to pay for the damage.

Until now, Sherwin-Williams' role has been purely business-oriented: It helps train unemployed workers to do lead abatement and gives discounted paint and other materials to governments with lead programs. But the company provides no cash for testing kids or rehabbing old houses -- a monumentally expensive task.

"There are many, many good government programs that exist to deal with health hazards," says lawyer Dias. "The focus is making sure that properties are well maintained."

Yet Rhode Island has ordered Sherwin-Williams to help fund a multibillion-dollar cleanup program. ACORN is pushing for similar funds in lead-laden cities across the country. "Why shouldn't the companies that made the profit be held responsible?" asks Smith.

Sherwin-Williams is fighting the Rhode Island verdict. But whatever happens in court, it's unlikely to solve Cleveland's lead crisis. Doctors can't prove for certain that a child's attention-deficit disorder or learning disabilities come from lead. And even if they could, more money won't help James Jackson sit through kindergarten or teach Alexandra Larson how to make friends.

On a recent morning, Alexandra's mother watches her lead-poisoned daughter squabble with her sisters and kick a volleyball around the living room. During a lull in the chaos, Alexandra flops down on the couch and stares vacantly at the TV. The flickering cartoon images seem to calm her, making it easier to forget the constant visits to doctors and the daily struggles to remember the difference between phrases like "tea of ice" and "iced tea. "

After what happened to her daughter, Larson says, she won't even buy a paint-brush at Sherwin-Williams. But she's not holding her breath while she waits for the company to cut her a check. Instead, she dedicates much of her free time to spreading the word about lead poisoning. Her daughter's blond, blue-eyed mug is now plastered on city buses as part of an awareness campaign.

"I just want to make sure that no other kid has to go through this," she says.

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