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Member Research and Reports

Member Research and Reports

Columbia Researchers Highlight Public Health Victory in AJPH: Industries Are Responsible for Cleaning Up the Environments They Polluted

Pioneering efforts by the state of California to control pollution and other environmental threats over the course of the past half century forced us as a nation to confront issues from how to dispose of waste to air pollution and the impact of global warming on the country and the world. A paper authored by Dr. David Rosner, Lauterstein Professor of Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Dr. Gerald Markowitz, adjunct professor, highlights the win for California and all the nation that industries are responsible for cleaning up the environments they polluted. Read more in the American Journal of Public Health.

Over the years, Drs. Rosner and Markowitz documented myriad instances in which industries knowingly profited from public health hazards. They provided expert testimony on what paint companies knew and when, and how internal corporate discussions showed they knew lead was dangerous while they marketed their products as safe.

The recent victory in California now promises to prevent lead poisoning among thousands of California’s children, seriously addressing the longest-lasting public health epidemic in American history. The California courts have ordered lead paint manufacturers to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to the state to abate the paint hazards in tens of thousands of California’s homes, and in mid-October 2018 the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the decision. This win followed more than two decades of legal struggles first in Rhode Island, where Mr. Sheldon Whitehouse, then-Attorney General (now one of Rhode Island’s U.S. Senators) and his team of attorneys, sought to hold the companies accountable, resulting in a jury verdict in the State’s favor. That verdict was ultimately overturned by the State’s Supreme Court but was pursued in California.

The principles established in the California court victory provide a roadmap for future efforts to clean up other toxic environments produced through a century of industrial pollution. The Supreme Court victory establishes that corporate polluters that have knowingly marketed and profited from toxic materials have the responsibility of paying to clean up the environmental damage their products continue to cause.

Despite the California Supreme Court ruling a two-decade struggle that followed, and a reduction in liability, the companies continued their efforts to avoid responsibility to clean up the housing stock that threatened to poison future generations of California’s children. Most recently, the companies took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court, probably in the hope that the California decision would be reversed.

The court rejected hearing the defense’s appeal and therefore affirmed the lower court opinion. Hence, the ruling stands.

“This is an enormous victory for public health in California and potentially for the nation,” said Dr. Rosner. “Not only will it provide funds to some of the nation’s most populous cities to remove lead and thereby protect future generations of California’s children, it also established a principle that industries are responsible for cleaning up environments that threaten health before people are harmed. The historic mission of public health is to prevent disease, and the California case affirms this mission and reminds us that, even in this time of regulatory retrenchment and federal inaction, there are other avenues to achieve public health victories.”