NEW ORLEANS - The president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) said the civil rights organization was preparing to file suit against former lead-paint producers, charging that lead-based paint has been a source of health problems and constitutes a "civil rights issue."

NAACP President Kweisi Mfune disclosed the lawsuit plans at the organization's recent annual convention in New Orleans. "For us it's a civil rights issue because you ought to have every reasonable expectation that as an American, you have the right to grow up in an environmentally safe situation, where you're not put at risk," Mfume said. "This affects everybody," he said. "This is not a black problem in the ghetto or in white suburbia. It's everywhere these houses exist."

A high-ranking National Paint & Coatings Association official, however, said any lawsuit mounted by the NAACP that is based on a civil-rights argument will face an uphill struggle. Thomas Graves, NPCA vice president and general counsel, said the NAACP case could not be argued on civil-rights or environmental-justice grounds while the organization is also asserting that the issue is not related to discrimination and that lead hazards are found "everywhere these houses exist."

Graves also said he considered the NAACP's position "ironic" in light of the fact that the coatings industry, through the CLEARCorps lead-reduction program, is providing assistance to inner-city residents, the majority of whom are "people of color." He asserted that the NAACP is "doing nothing" about lead hazards, while CLEARCorps has launched lead-reduction programs in 10 U.S. cities and is engaged in activities ranging from actual lead abatement to education of residents on ways to prevent lead hazards.