Monday, March 4, 2013

Lead Poisoning: The Ignored Scandal

Some time ago we provided a post titled Why We Need the EPA: Lead Poisoning, Intelligence, and Crime Rates. The article was a celebration of all the beneficial effects of banning the introduction of lead into the environment via commercial products such as gasoline and paint. The elimination of lead was found to have diminished lead poisoning incidents greatly, increased the IQ of the next generation by several points, and was associated with a fall in the crime rate. Studies have shown that childhood exposure to lead can lead to aggressive and antisocial behavior in later life. No better explanation for the fall in crime in the subsequent years has yet been put forward. However, we now learn more about the history of our nation and its approach to lead poisoning and realize that while there was cause for celebration, there is also cause for national shame.

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 problem began in the early twentieth century when a spate of lead-poisoning cases in children occurred across the United States. The symptoms—vomiting, convulsions, bleeding gums, palsied limbs, and muscle pain so severe ‘as not to permit of the weight of bed-clothing,’ as one doctor described it—were recognizable at once because they resembled the symptoms of factory workers poisoned in the course of enameling bathtubs or preparing paint and gasoline additives. One Dupont factory was even nicknamed ‘the House of the Butterflies’ because so many workers had hallucinations of insects flying around. Many victims had to be taken away in straitjackets; some died."

The use of lead in paint was particularly insidious.

"By the 1920s, it was known that one common cause of childhood lead poisoning was the consumption of lead paint chips. Lead paint was popular in American homes because its brightness appealed to the national passion for hygiene and modernism, but the chips taste sweet, and it could be difficult to keep small children away from them."

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.

"Because of its well-known dangers, many other countries banned interior lead paint during the 1920s and 1930s, including Belgium, France, Austria, Tunisia, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Sweden, Spain, and Yugoslavia."

"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.

"The Lead Industries Association had grown into a powerful political force, and the pro-business, America-first Harding administration vetoed the ban. Products containing lead continued to be marketed to American families well into the 1970s, and by midcentury lead was everywhere: in plumbing and lighting fixtures, painted toys and cribs, the foil on candy wrappers, and even cake decorations. Because most cars ran on leaded gasoline, its concentration in the air was also increasing, especially in cities."

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.

"When University of Pittsburgh professor Herbert Needleman first showed that even children with relatively modest lead levels tended to have lower intelligence and more behavioral problems than their lead-free peers, some of these industry-backed researchers claimed that his methods were sloppy and accused him of scientific misconduct (he has since been exonerated)."

"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?

"According to the Centers for Disease Control, parents should be concerned if their children’s blood lead concentration exceeds five micrograms per deciliter, but studies have found that even infinitesimally low levels—down to one or two micrograms per deciliter—can reduce a child’s IQ and impair her self-control and ability to organize thoughts."

Epstein puts these amounts in perspective for us.

"....Dutch Boy paint—which contained enough lead in one coat of a two-by-two-inch square to kill a child...."

Epstein estimates that the number of children harmed was in the millions.

"There is no way of knowing how many children were harmed over the past century by America’s decision not to ban lead from consumer products early on, but the number is somewhere in the millions. The most accurate national survey of lead poisoning was probably the 1976–1980 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, which found that 4 percent of all children under six—roughly 780,000—had blood lead concentrations exceeding thirty micrograms per deciliter, which was then thought to be the limit of safety."

"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.

"During the 1980s, government officials finally agreed that the lead paint crisis was real, but they were conflicted about how to deal with it. In 1990, the Department of Health and Human Services developed a plan to remove lead from the nation’s homes over fifteen years at a cost of $33 billion—a large sum, but half the estimated cost of doing nothing, which would incur a greater need for special education programs, Medicaid and welfare payments for brain-damaged and disabled lead-poisoning victims, and other expenses."

Then politics as usual entered the picture.

"But the plan was opposed by the lead industry, realtors, landlords, insurance companies, and even some private pediatricians who objected to the extra bother of screening children."

Epstein tells us the US government has spent less than $2 billion on lead abatement.

"This money has supported a number of exemplary state and nonprofit programs that work in inner cities, but it’s a tiny fraction of what’s needed, and about twenty times less than US spending on the global AIDS crisis since 2004 alone."

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.

"Even minor exposures to lead can cause nervous system disorders, lowered IQ’s, impaired memory and reaction times, and shortened attention spans. So it is very important to clean up areas where lead paint was once used and dust frequently to avoid the lead particles that accumulate in household dust."

"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.

"If lead poisoning had been seen as a problem affecting middle-class children, this might well have happened."

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