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Settlement reached in Escondido Village lead case

STANFORD -- After nearly two years of negotiations, settlement has been reached in a lawsuit filed by a graduate student family and the Environmental Law Foundation against Stanford over the presence of lead-containing paint in Escondido Village, a student family housing complex.

Under the terms of the settlement, Stanford will provide written notice about the presence of low levels of lead in the complex, along with lead risk-reduction guidelines, to all families currently at Escondido Village. Similar information will be printed in future graduate housing guides and residence agreements.

The university also has agreed to reimburse the plaintiffs - law student Sarah Dennison-Leonard, her husband, Charles, their daughter, Carlie, and the Environmental Law Foundation - $166,265 in legal and scientific consulting fees. (The state allows a court to award such fees to a party in a public interest lawsuit.)

Stanford officials are convinced that the actions they have taken ensure the safety of residents. The university has evaluated lead-containing painted surfaces in the residences with children, completely renovated the Village's Peppertree Nursery School, replaced of benches, swing sets and sand, repaired chipped or worn painted surfaces, and implemented a lead risk-reduction program for residents.

“Our goal in all of this has been to ensure that we don't allow conditions that would create child lead-poisoning problems,” said Larry Gibbs, Stanford's associate vice president for environmental health and safety. “That has been our focus from the outset, and all the evidence to date shows that we are maintaining a safe and healthful environment.”

A total of 60 Escondido Village youngsters so far have been taken in by their parents for free voluntary blood tests, which are offered by the university for all village residents under the age of 7. No detectable blood levels of lead have been found in any of the children tested. (Lead, even in relatively low concentrations, can be a health concern if regularly ingested by young children.)

The lawsuit was filed in December 1992 by the Oakland- based Environmental Law Foundation on behalf of Dennison-Leonard and her husband, who are the parents of a preschool-aged daughter.

The Dennison-Leonards made no claim that their daughter had been harmed. They did include an allegation that the university violated California's Proposition 65 by failing to give them clear and reasonable warning concerning exposure to lead from the painted surfaces in and about the Escondido Village family unit areas.

Part of the difficulty in reaching settlement, according to Janet Gleason, health and safety coordinator for Housing and Dining Services at Stanford, was that “it is not certain what level of lead in paint would trigger the need for notice or warning for exposure to lead under California's Proposition 65 - especially if the paint is not cracked or peeling.:

The plaintiffs originally argued that Proposition 65 requires warnings even when lead concentrations are below the level of laboratory detection.

Only young children who might eat paint chips are subject to harmful exposure from lead in paint. “The focus of the Proposition 65 issues raised by plaintiffs was the Escondido Village family situations,” Gleason said.

“Stanford does not want to give warnings where they are not appropriate; and, in fact, it is possible to be found liable for penalties for giving warning where not required by Proposition 65,” Gleason said. “This scientific uncertainty resulted in lengthy analysis and debate over when and how warnings should be given so as to provide useful information to residents without raising undue alarm.”

Stanford health and safety officials say they have consistently followed national professional risk-assessment guidelines for identifying and evaluating the lead-containing paint, as set forth by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the California Department of Health Services.

Last year, based on the recommendations of an expert consultant, the university spent approximately $140,000 removing and replacing chipped or peeling structures (including swing sets and the sand beneath them) or enclosing chipped or peeling painted surfaces. It spent another $70,000 to completely renovate the Peppertree Nursery School.

This is not the first lawsuit filed by the Environmental Law Foundation in relation to Proposition 65. The firm also has targeted wine bottle and water faucet manufacturers for failing to alert California consumers about the lead content in their products.

“The mixture of lead-containing paint and children needs to be taken very seriously, as lead poisoning in children is a very serious issue,” Stanford's Gibbs said. “The best and most reasonable approach to managing the risks of lead-containing painted surfaces is to identify the risk factors associated with potential exposure to lead-containing paint, and manage them. That is what Stanford is doing.”

The Escondido Village complex was built in phases between 1959 and 1966, before the amount of lead allowed in paint was substantially reduced in 1978. About three-quarters of privately owned and occupied housing units built in the United States before 1980 contain levels of lead in painted surfaces that exceed the post-1978 regulations.



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