Let Them Eat Paint: Childhood Lead Paint Poisoning as the Denial of Constitutional and Civil Rights

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Hope Kerpelman is a member of the Columbia Law School Class of 2020.

Over forty years ago, the United States federal government banned the use of lead-based paint in residences. Yet, tens of millions of American homes still contain lead paint today—exposing huge numbers of children to a grave risk of irreversible brain damage. While most Americans are familiar with the devastating 2014 crisis caused by lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan, few realize that Flint is only a small piece of a much larger lead poisoning problem. In thousands of towns across the United States today, children suffer elevated blood lead levels at even greater rates than those observed in Flint. In many cases, the cause of lead exposure for these children is not water, but paint.

A child living in a home with deteriorating lead paint can easily suffer life-long harm—just by breathing in invisible lead dust or touching lead-contaminated surfaces and later putting their hands in their mouth. Despite clear evidence of the serious consequences of lead since the early 1900s, however, the lead paint problem has festered in America’s shadows for over a century. Most recently, in the decades since the residential ban, landlords and sellers have refused to adequately test for and remove lead paint from their properties—and governments and regulatory agencies have failed to enact effective laws and enforce regulations.

Why has this crisis been allowed to continue for so long? History, empirical data, and anecdotal evidence all strongly suggest that America has ignored the issue largely because lead poisoning mainly affects low-income communities and people of color.

This Note argues that the current legal remedies used to address the lead paint epidemic are inadequate and have failed to fix a completely preventable public health crisis. In addition, it demonstrates that all of the existing approaches to lead poisoning—legislative reform, regulatory action, lawsuits sounding in common law negligence, and the use of market share liability and public nuisance doctrine—do not address the underlying issues of racial and economic discrimination that have perpetuated this problem for decades.

In order to ensure enforcement of federal and state laws, to legitimize the experiences of children who have suffered at the hands of discriminatory policies, and to garner national attention to the issue, this Note argues that advocates should expand their response to lead paint by pursuing claims under constitutional and civil rights theories. In particular, this Note analyzes how litigators can bring successful lead poisoning claims under the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Fair Housing Act, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

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