Who is Accountable for Lead Poisoning?


A four-letter environmental hazard is plaguing residents of Kent County, and making headlines: PFAS. Short for Perfluoroalkyl Sulfonate, PFAS is a chemical compound found in the scotchguard used in sealing shoes during manufacturing.


Exposure to PFAS has been connected to major diseases and illnesses including miscarriage, and cancer, but the long term health effects remain largely unknown. PFAS was first discovered in the water supply of residents of Plainfield Township, and the impacted area continues to grow. Since the story broke last summer, it’s been huge, disturbing news. Affected residents are angry, and they have every right to be. These families have been unwittingly ingesting a toxic chemical for years in their drinking water.

Local Kent County residents are developing and mounting a class action lawsuit against Wolverine World Wide, the company who has been blamed for creating this hazard. They allegedly dumped hazardous materials in various sites in northern Kent Country from the late 1930’s to the late 1970’s. Wolverine seems to be the clear party for families to blame here, and though taking responsibility doesn’t change the existing harm, it could mitigate future damage.

But, parents in Kent County are facing another formidable four-letter word: lead. Unlike PFAS, the accountability for childhood lead poisoning is decidedly more murky.  

Lead paint was used in homes before it was banned in 1978. A large percentage of homes built in Grand Rapids before that time have the existing original lead paint. The original owners or builders are likely long since gone, and the paint companies no longer make lead paint.


So, who is ultimately responsible for fixing lead?


Is is the Landlords?

Landlords have a potential huge impact on lead poisoning, as one affected property can poison multiple children in multiple families. Currently, landlords only need to disclose to renters that there may be lead hazards in a home. City codes and county regulations protect tenants from homes with chipping paint and unsafe work practices. Despite these safeguards, many rental properties fall through the cracks and remain unsafe. Legal costs for most residents make taking on a civil case against a landlord impossible. Should regulations on rental properties be tightened? Should landlords take on a more proactive role in protecting residents?

So, does lead poisoning stop with landlords?

Is it the Government?

At the city, county, and state levels, the government has intervened to protect families from lead poisoning. Statutes and laws have been enacted, but enforcement is a challenge. The government didn’t create the damage, but stands between the people and the harm. Should the government pay for the damages done? Should they fix the homes? Should they require universal testing of homes and children?

So, does lead poisoning stop with the government?

Is it the Paint companies?

Like PFAS, the lead hazard was originally introduced to these environments by the companies themselves. Only one state has been successful in holding them financially accountable. In California, a class action lawsuit was started by residents of ten counties in 1980 and settled in 2017. Three companies, ConAgra, NL Industries and Sherwin-Williams  were held responsible to the tune of $1.15 billion. However, this case took 17 years, and was appealed, making the actual payout an estimated $600 million. Should parents go through this lengthy and unprecedented process? Should paint companies pay for their past mistakes?

So, does lead poisoning stop with the paint companies?

Is it the Parents?

Parents have the responsibility to protect their children; no one will argue that. But, how far does that protection reasonably extend? Can parents realistically protect their kids from hazards they didn’t create or know even existed? Many parents facing lead hazards don’t have the ability to pay for removal, and can’t afford to move to a safer living situation. Parents may fear retaliation from their landlords, so they don’t say anything, let alone take legal action.

Parents with lead poisoned children want to demand action, but it’s infinitely more complex when the answer isn’t direct about who to seek action from. Often, the answer that comes back to parents is that they need to manage these issues alone, and with no resources, their kids continue to hurt.

It’s time to stop passing the buck. Accountability for lead poisoning needs to be determined, because lead poisoning does not stop with parents.