Lessons learned from the lead poisoning of America

Summary: The story of lead in America is one of both good and bad news. Lead using industries poisoned us for profit longer after the danger was known. But eventually scientists got the news out and regulations reduced lead exposures (although they are still too high for too many). Let’s learn from this history and respond to future threats more quickly. And also, let’s ignore libertarians’ fairy tales (as explained in one of the best posts, ever).

“The major source of trouble is the flaking of lead paint in the ancient slum dwellings of our older cities, The problem of lead poisoning in children will be with us for as long as there are slums.”
— Manfred Bowditch, the director of Health and Safety for the Lead Industries Association, at its 1957 annual meeting. It’s the fault of ignorant poor parents, not the companies that put toxic lead in their products!

Children's blood lead levels

Lead Exposure Linked to School Problems and Crime

By Jay Fitzgerald in the NBER Digest, July 2017.

“The use of lead in gasoline, paint, and other products has been sharply restricted since the 1970s as part of a national effort to reduce the incidence of neurological and other medical problems associated with lead ingestion, particularly by children. In “Lead and Juvenile Delinquency: New Evidence from Linked Birth, School, and Juvenile Detention Records“, Anna Aizer and Janet Currie analyze a particularly rich dataset on lead levels in the blood of 120,000 children born 1990-2004 in Rhode Island. They find a strong link between childhood lead exposure and anti-social behavior in individual-level data. Higher lead levels are associated with higher school suspension and juvenile detention rates, as well as higher incarceration rates later in life. …

“Although lead in household paints was banned in 1978 and phased out of gasoline between 1976 and 1986, lead levels remain high in some older homes and in roadside soil contaminated years ago by lead-emitting vehicles. The regulatory bans on lead use have resulted in decreased childhood exposure to lead, and some scholars argue that the drop in crime rates in recent decades is partly explained by declining lead exposure. …

“The researchers conclude that their ‘results support the hypothesis that reductions in blood lead levels may indeed have been responsible for a significant part of the observed decrease in anti-social behavior among youths and young adults in recent decades.'”

The reduction of children’s blood levels is great news. But let’s not forget the source of the lead — or the generations of children whose lives were damaged or ruined by toxic lead. It was a result of America’s libertarian past. The past that so many conservatives want to return, where corporations can pollute with impunity.

Now the Republicans dominate at all levels of government. Their policy is back to the future. While the Left begins revolutions in our society, matters about which the 1% does not care, the 1% gathers money and political power.

Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America's Children (California/Milbank Books on Health and the Public)
Available at Amazon.

Notes about our past

The Long, Ugly History
of the Politics of Lead Poisoning

By Laura Bliss in CityLab, 9 February 2016.

“Why has lead poisoning never really been treated like what it is — the longest-lasting childhood health epidemic in U.S. history?

“According to a new paper in the Journal of Urban History by David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, the public health historians and co-authors of Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children, the answer lies at the intersection of politics, class, and race.

“By the 1920s, lead was an essential part of the middle-class American home. It was in telephones, ice boxes, vacuums, irons, and washing machines; dolls, painted toys, bean bags, baseballs, and fishing lures. Perhaps most perniciously, it was in gasoline, pipes and paint, the building blocks of urbanization and a growing housing stock.

“That was precisely how the lead industry wanted their product to be seen. Despite the fact that lead was known to be toxic as early as the late 19th century, manufacturers and trade groups fiercely marketed it as essential to America’s economic growth and consumer ideals, especially when it came to their walls. Latching onto the nation’s post-Depression affection for clean, bright colors, they were successful.

“But pressures on the industry began to mount by the 1950s, by which time millions of children had been chronically or acutely exposed. Federal public health officials had documented lead’s irreversible effects for young people who ingested even trace amounts. Newspapers and public health departments began regularly reporting new cases linked to water and wall paint.

“If the lead industry had stepped up then (or if it had been forced to by government), maybe lead poisoning would have been treated like any other major childhood disease — polio, for example. In the 1950s, ‘[F]ewer than sixty thousand new cases of polio per year created a near-panic among American parents and a national mobilization that led to vaccination campaigns that virtually wiped out the disease within a decade,’ write Rosner and Markowitz. With lead poisoning, the industry and federal government could have mobilized together to systemically detoxify the nation’s lead-infested housing stock, and end the epidemic right there.

“Instead, the industry’s powerful leaders diverted the attention of health officials away from their products, and toward class and race. …

“It was necessary ‘to educate the parents’ about the risk of lead paint, Bowditch complained to a colleague in 1956. “But most of the cases are in Negro and Puerto Rican families, and how does one tackle that job?”

“This idea, combined with the lead industry’s powerful lobbying and marketing forces, set the stage for the lead debate for decades to come. With the industry unwilling to accept responsibility for a toxic product, and with the ‘problem’ of lead reduced to a certain type of neighborhood, Rosner and Markowitz argue that public health officials failed to address the lead epidemic beyond reducing known damage.”

Eventually, despite industry opposition (propaganda and lies), scientists produced impossible to ignore research. One of the first such warnings was “Contaminated and Natural Lead Environments of Man” by Clair C. Patterson in the Archives of Environmental Health, September 1965 (Gated; available at Scribd). The first major study showing the ill effects of even “low” lead levels was “Deficits in Psychologic and Classroom Performance of Children with Elevated Dentine Lead Levels” by Herbert Needleman et al in the New England Journal of Medicine, 29 March 1979.

“In victories over the lead industry, officials raised their standards on what constituted dangerous blood lead levels, and the federal government succeeded in phasing out lead as an additive in gasoline in the 1980s. But while affluent families could afford to detoxify their homes of lead, low-income families and those living in public housing still weren’t necessarily able to.

“As federal agencies added up the enormous cost of proactive lead abatement in the millions of housing units estimated to contain the toxin, the Reagan era’s rejection of major federal programs made it seem impossible to justify. Health officials kept on treating children after they were poisoned, rather than preventing tragedy. And, says Rosner, the lead ‘problem’ went back to something that was linked to the vulnerable and uneducated, so overwhelming in scope as to eliminate hope for eradication.”

Take another look at that graph. Lead levels are down in Rhode Island but still too high in many areas — because lead exposure is concentrated in the poor. And, as we learned in Flint, there are far worse “hot spots” of lead toxicity. But look at all the money we saved by not monitoring or cleaning up lead exposure!

For More Information

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  1. Good news: air quality in the US has improved!
  2. About the long-term effect of giant oil spills.
  3. The oceans are dying. See their condition on World Oceans Day!


2 thoughts on “Lessons learned from the lead poisoning of America”

  1. It’s good to note also that nations started banning interior lead paint in 1909 (France, Belgium & Austria) and the League of Nations did the same in 1921.

    Mostly I’m commenting to applaud your recommendations list. 1776 is and ever will be spectacular. “This is a revolution, dammit! We’re going to have to offend somebody!”

    Also https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQbYgLae1u0&list=RDKQbYgLae1u0&index=1 (Sadly without accompanying video)

    1. Larry Kummer, Editor

      The Murr,

      I didn’t know that! Thanks for that cheerful info. We have much to learn from Europe, if only we’d lose the belief in our exceptionalism.

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