Lead is a soft gray metal that improves the protective power of paint.
Throughout the 19th century and up until about 1950, lead was added to
most paint to improve its covering power and durability. Unfortunately,
lead is a powerful poison. At low levels, it reduces a person's
intelligence, makes it difficult to concentrate or pay attention, and
harms hearing. These effects are permanent. Naturally, in children,
these effects reduce performance in school. (At higher levels, lead has
many additional severe effects including kidney disease, blindness,
seizures, and death.)
Kids eat peeling paint; it tastes like lemon drops. Starting in the
1930s, public health authorities began to realize that lead in paint
was poisoning children, particularly children in dilapidated housing in
inner cities. Baltimore began a lead screening program in 1931. After
20 years observing the lead problem, the head of the Baltimore health
department published an evaluation in a public health journal:
In Baltimore, he said, the rate of poisoning among children was ".5
times as high among the Negro population as it was among the white
population.... The high rates among Negro children are a problem of
considerable public health significance since 30 percent of Baltimore's
pre-school population is Negro. The racial difference in incidence is
believed to be due to environmental factors probably resulting chiefly
from economic disadvantage." This was written 40 years ago, in 1952.1
By 1969, the best estimate was that 200,000 children each year were
being added to the thousands already poisoned by lead, according to
researchers at the New Jersey College of Medicine. "These children are
almost entirely black and Puerto Rican because it is they who are stuck
in run-down housing," they said. They went on, "At present, Boards of
Health in most cities would admit to the magnitude of the problem but
do little to solve it. Some small-scale screening programs are carried
out intermittently, but of course, they do not reach the majority of
the hundreds of thousands of affected children."
In 1970, publications of the U.S. Public Health Service [USPHS]
acknowledged that lead poisoning was disproportionately affecting black
and Puerto Rican children. For example, one publication said, "A high
incidence is reported among Negroes and Puerto Ricans, probably because
such a large proportion of these ethnic groups live in 'lead
There can be absolutely no doubt that by 1970 the medical and public
health communities, inside and outside government, fully understood and
acknowledged that lead was selectively killing and maiming black and
Puerto Rican children trapped by poverty in poisoned housing.
The selective poisoning of non-white children was the subject of many
studies and front-page newspaper stories 20 years ago. For example, the
U.S. Public Health Service's Bureau of Community Environmental
Management surveyed housing in 27 U.S. cities in 1971. Dr. Roger
Challop, who coordinated the survey, told the WASHINGTON POST that
" percent of the black children tested had elevated levels of lead
in their blood while the figure for white children was 11%."
In Washington, D.C., a city with a large black population, the
situation was acknowledged to be particularly bad: "Thirty to 50% of
District of Columbia babies may be expected to have an undue body
burden of lead before school age, a 1971 survey by Georgetown
University doctors reported. Damage may range from nervous disorders to
severe mental retardation."
A 1971 study of 79,199 children by the Health Services Administration
of New York City found lead poisoning three times more common among
black children than among a population called "white and Puerto
A 1973 editorial in the WASHINGTON POST described the situation in
unusually plain language: "As the late Rep. William F. Ryan said last
year in Senate hearings, 'lead poisoning is not some rare malady
waiting for a miracle cure. It is totally man-made and a totally
preventable disease. It exists only because we let it exist. Lead
poisoning has sentenced thousands of young children to lives of misery,
disease and even death.'" The POST went on to say, "One reason the
nation has never mounted a public health campaign against lead paint
poisoning is that it affects mostly the poor, the black, the Spanish
speaking and others who often must endure miserable housing."
The tone and style of the federal government's response to the
poisoning of non-white children was set by Richard Nixon. In 1970
Congress authorized $30 million to solve the problem. However, in his
1971 budget sent to Congress, Mr. Nixon include zero dollars to combat
lead poisoning. After 45 members of Congress, led by Senator Ted
Kennedy, complained loudly, the Nixon administration grudgingly put in
$2 million for three demonstration projects. Reporting these events,
the TIMES printed the current best estimate, which was that 400,000
children were then being poisoned by lead each year.
For the next 20 years, Congress and the nation's medical and public
health establishments waffled, procrastinated, and shuffled paper while
the problem steadily grew worse. Sometimes funding would reach as high
as $50 million per year. During the years of Mr. Reagan's policy of
"benign neglect," funding dropped much lower, but even in the best
years funding never reached levels that would make a real dent in the
problem. Meanwhile new research year after year revealed that effects
of lead poisoning were worse than previously understood. In 1971 a
child wasn't considered "at risk" unless he or she had 400 micrograms
of lead in a liter of blood (or 40 micrograms per deciliter [u/dl]).
Since that time, the amount of lead that is considered "safe" has
continually dropped. In 1991 the U.S. Public Health Service changed the
official definition of an "unsafe" level to 10 u/dl. Even at that
level, a child's IQ can be slightly diminished and physical growth
In a particularly blunt assessment of the problem, Professor Marianne
C. Fahs of Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City said in 1991,
"Lead poisoning is the most common and socially devastating disease of
young American children, resulting in lifelong stupidity for at least 3
to 4 million future citizens." Dr. Fahs pointed to a recent study
showing that a $32 billion investment to clean up lead in dilapidated
housing would save more than $60 billion in medical costs for poisoned
In the spring of 1991, the Bush administration announced an ambitious
program to reduce lead exposure of American children, including
widespread testing of homes, certification of those who remove lead
from homes, and medical treatment for affected children. At last it
seemed our leaders were coming to grips with the lead-poisoning
problem. At that time, Dr. William Roper, director of the federal
Centers for Disease Control [CDC] said--echoing words that had been
common among politicians in 1970--"We believe that lead poisoning is
the No. 1 environmental problem facing America's children. Therefore it
will take a major societal effort to eliminate it."
Six months later, President Bush turned his back on the lead problem.
CDC officials announced that the administration "does not see this as a
necessary federal role" to legislate or regulate the cleanup of lead
poisoning or to require that homes be tested, or to require home owners
to disclose results once they are known, or to establish standards for
those who test or clean up lead hazards. It was a total collapse.
According to the NEW YORK TIMES, the National Association of Realtors
had pressured Mr. Bush to drop his lead initiative because they feared
that forcing homeowners to eliminate lead hazards would add $5,000 to
$10,000 to the price of those homes, further harming a real estate
market that had been devastated by the aftershocks of Reaganomics.
The lead problem now affects almost all American children, though black
and Hispanic kids are still more poisoned than whites. A 1990 report by
the Environmental Defense Fund [EDF], a Washington-based environmental
group, revealed that, judged by the new 1991 standard (10 u/dl), 96% of
black children and 80% of white children of poor families in inner
cities have unsafe amounts of lead in their blood, amounts sufficient
to reduce IQ somewhat, probably harm hearing, reduce the ability to
concentrate, and stunt physical growth. Even in families with annual
incomes greater than $15,000, among black children in cities, 85% have
unsafe lead levels, compared to 47% of white children. Never before
in the history of the world has a nation poisoned its children on such
 Huntington Williams and others, "Lead Poisoning in Young Children,"
PUBLIC HEALTH REPORTS Vol. 67 (March, 1952), pgs. [230-236.]230-236.
 Azriel Nagar and Sheila Nagar, "Lead Poisoning--A Disease of the
Poor," CONTRAST [a publication of the New Jersey College of Medicine]
November, 1969, pg. 11.
 Jane S. Lin-Fu, "Childhood Lead Poisoning...an eradicable disease,"
CHILDREN Vol. 17 No. 1 (Jan.-Feb., 1970), pgs. 2-9. Reprinted as a
pamphlet by the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare as
LEAD POISONING IN CHILDREN [Public Health Service publication number
2108-1970] (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1970).
 Bart Barnes, "Lead Level Found Hazardous in 75% of Pre-
 Homes," WASHINGTON POST June 15, 1972, pg. A30.
 Victor Cohn, "FDA Bans Lead From Home Paints," WASHINGTON POST
March 11, 1972, pgs. A-1, A-10.
 "Lead Poisoning Study Finds 3 Blacks Suffer to 1 White," NEW YORK
TIMES December 6, 1971, pg. 37.
 "Let Them Eat Lead," WASHINGTON POST Feb. 10, 1973, pg. A-14.
 Associated Press, "Lead Poison Drive is Urged in Senate," NEW YORK
TIMES September 14, 1971, pg. 58.
 Marianne C. Fahs, "White House Should Stay With Lead Cleanup," NEW
YORK TIMES September 18, 1991, pg. A18.
 Philip J. Hilts, "White House Shuns Key Role in Lead Exposure,"
NEW YORK TIMES August 24, 1991, pg. 14.
 Karen Florini and others, LEGACY OF LEAD: AMERICA'S CONTINUING
EPIDEMIC OF CHILDHOOD LEAD POISONING (Washington, D.C.: Environmental
Defense Fund, March, 1990).
Descriptor terms: lead; baltimore, md; phs; lead poisoning; puerto
rico; washington, dc; washington post; ronald reagan; george bush; cdc;