Helen Epstein discusses the history of lead pollution in our country in an article in the New York Review of Books: Lead Poisoning: The Ignored Scandal. Epstein’s comments are focused on reviewing a book by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner: Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children.
The danger of lead poisoning was well known.
The use of lead in paint was particularly insidious.
While it was a good thing to ban lead from paint in the latter half of the century, it is less well-known that our country was about 50 years behind most of the world.
"In 1922, the League of Nations proposed a worldwide lead paint ban, but at the time, the US was the largest lead producer in the world, and consumed 170,000 tons of white lead paint each year."
Thus begins a tale reminiscent of the tobacco fiasco.
When the dangers of lead in paints came under public scrutiny, the lead industry responded in a now familiar manner. Advertising campaigns were mounted to improve the image of their products, public relations experts were brought in to plant friendly articles in conservative media outlets, and scientists were hired to produce false data to counter the scientific evidence.
"The companies also hired a public relations firm to influence stories in The Wall Street Journal and other conservative news outlets, which characterized Needleman as part of a leftist plot to increase government spending on housing and other social programs."
"....the lead industry....lied to Americans for decades, and the government did nothing to stop it."
How severe was the problem of lead poisoning in children?
Epstein puts these amounts in perspective for us.
Epstein estimates that the number of children harmed was in the millions.
"Black children, the survey found, were six times more likely to have elevated lead than whites. The number of children with lead levels over five micrograms per deciliter—or for that matter over one or two—was obviously much higher, but there’s no way of knowing how high it was."
Incredibly, when the dangers from lead exposure became widely recognized and lead was forbidden in most domestic products, almost nothing was done to eliminate the exposure dangers that already existed.
Then politics as usual entered the picture.
Epstein tells us the US government has spent less than $2 billion on lead abatement.
Our government allowed a known health problem to persist for another quarter century even though it knew children were continuing to be poisoned. Consider this information currently found on the website of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
"Lead poisoning is a serious problem! Childhood lead poisoning is still one of the most important health issues in the United States today. According to recent CDC estimates, 890,000 U.S. children age 1-5 have elevated blood lead levels, and more than one-fifth of African-American children living in housing built before 1946 have elevated blood lead levels. These figures reflect the major sources of lead exposure: deteriorated paint in older housing, and dust and soil that are contaminated with lead from old paint and from past emissions of leaded gasoline. And to complicate things, lead poisoning can be so subtle that the affected child may not show any clear physical signs."
Epstein finishes on an appropriately depressing note by reminding us that politicians reply to pressure. Who was there to speak up for the children of the poor for whom this continues to be a threat? There was no one organized to counter the lead industry, realtors, landlords, insurance companies, and lazy pediatricians. The children of the poor did not rate the sort of advocacy campaigns that have inspired other political actions.