We began this series last week with a 1999 report from the NEW
YORK TIMES which said state governments in the U.S. are refusing
to comply with a 1989 federal law requiring that children be tested
for lead poisoning. Even at low levels, lead poisoning can reduce
a child's IQ, impair hearing and stunt growth. Federal law
requires all children enrolled in the Medicaid medical insurance
program to be tested for lead poisoning at age 12 months and
again at age 2 years. The federal government pays the costs of
testing and subsequent treatment for any children found poisoned.
However, according to a 1999 study by the General Accounting
Office (GAO), an investigative arm of Congress, state governments
are simply refusing to comply with the law. As a result, the
GAO said, hundreds of thousands of children exposed to
dangerously high levels of lead are neither tested nor treated,
the TIMES reported. (See REHW #687.)
We are seeking an answer to the question, "Why would governments
set policies that continue to poison children?"
* * *
Childhood lead poisoning is not new. Medical reports of children
poisoned by lead began to appear in the U.S. in 1914. By the
1930s, a torrent of information about the problem was appearing
in medical journals.[1,2,3] Prior to World War I, one obvious
source of the problem had been clearly identified: lead-based
paint applied to the walls, toys, and furniture in children's
homes. Lead, the soft, gray toxic metal makes an excellent white
pigment (to which other colors can be added) and leaded paints
provide durable protective coatings. Nevertheless, as time
passes, leaded paint dries out and begins to peel, flake and
disintegrate into a toxic powder. As a result, toddlers can get
toxic flakes or dust on their hands, then into their
mouths.[4,5,6] Brain damage often follows.
Long before World War I this information was so widely understood
that France, Belgium and Austria restricted the use of leaded
paint in 1909. Tunisia, Greece and Australia took similar action
in 1922, the same year the Third International Labor Conference
of the League of Nations recommended a complete ban on leaded
paint for indoor use. In 1924, Czechoslovakia restricted the use
of lead paint; Great Britain, Sweden and Belgium followed suit in
1926; Spain and Yugoslavia in 1931; Cuba in 1934. The U.S. on the
other hand took no action until 1970.
How did the paint and lead industries react to the information
that their products were poisoning children? Recently, as a
result of a lawsuit, many internal documents from the paint and
lead industries became public for the first time. Two historians,
Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, have summarized some of these
documents in a remarkable history published last month in the
AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH.
To begin with, lead paint manufacturers acknowledged -- at least
privately -- that lead was toxic. In 1921, Edward J. Cornish,
president of the National Lead Company, manufacturer of the
leading brand of lead-based paint, wrote to David Edsall, dean of
the Harvard Medical School, saying that, as a result of "50 or 60
years" of experience, paint manufacturers agreed that "lead is a
poison when it enters the stomach of man -- whether it comes
directly from the ores and mines and smelting works"1 or from the
finished forms of lead (carbonate of lead, lead oxides, and
sulfate and sulfide of lead).
As early as 1897 one paint manufacturer in New York City was
advertising that "Aspinall's Enamel is NOT made with lead and is
Within the paint industry, there were voices of prudence. In 1914
the director of the scientific section of the Paint
Manufacturer's Association predicted that "lead poisoning will be
done away with almost entirely" because "sanitary leadless"
paints had been developed. In truth, titanium and zinc
substitutes for lead paint pigments had become readily available
during the latter part of the 19th century, so there was never
any compelling need for toxic lead-based pigments. However, lead
was plentiful and profitable and its victims were not organized.
As the bad news about lead-based paint accumulated, the paint and
lead industries took the offensive by using images of children in
their advertising and sales promotions. Starting in 1907, the
National Lead Company began to promote its "Dutch Boy White Lead
Paint" using the image of a child on the label. Before 1920,
National Lead was explicitly aiming its marketing and advertising
at children. An ad in 1918 showed a little girl purchasing "Dutch
Boy White Lead Paint." The ad recommended that paint merchants
should "Cater to the children." It asked, "Have you stopped to
think that the children of today are the grown-ups of
tomorrow..." A 1920 ad -- headlined "Don't Forget the Children"
-- suggested that paint sales personnel should give gifts to
children who visited their paint store accompanied by a parent.
"Parents appreciate little attentions of this sort paid to their
children," the ad said. In 1924, National Lead began promoting
the use of lead-based paint in public schools.
The Lead Industry Association (LIA) was formed in 1928 to promote
the use of lead. At that time, lead-based paint was the single
biggest user of lead, though lead in gasoline was rising as well.
Acknowledging the poisoned-children problem, the LIA claimed it
was urging toy and furniture manufacturers to avoid lead-based
paints, but toy manufacturers who tested their products found
them contaminated with lead-based paints. Someone was lying. For
its part, National Lead -- the lead-paint industry leader -- was
aggressively marketing lead-based paint to children. For example,
the firm published a booklet for children in 1930, showing the
Dutch Boy skipping along hand-in-hand with 2 children, then
mixing white lead with colors and painting walls and furniture.
The booklet contained this jingle:
The girl and boy felt very blue
Their toys were old and shabby too,
They couldn't play in such a place,
The room was really a disgrace.
This famous Dutch Boy Lead of mine
Can make this playroom fairly shine
Let's start our painting right away
You'll find the work is only play.
Another promotion showed a crawling infant making hand-prints on
a painted wall. The caption said, "There is no cause for worry
when fingerprint smudges or dirt spots appear on a wall painted
with Dutch Boy white-lead." Historians Markowitz and Rosner
observe, "The explicit message was that it was easy to clean the
wall; the implicit message was that it was safe for toddlers to
touch woodwork and walls covered with lead paint."
In addition to using images of children to sell lead paint,
National Lead emphasized that lead was healthy. Beginning in
1923, National Lead was advertising in NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC that
"lead helps to guard your health." Throughout the 1920s, National
Lead advertised in MODERN HOSPITAL magazine, calling white lead
paint "the doctor's assistant." The ads assured readers that
walls covered with lead-based paint "do not chip, peel, or scale"
-- an obvious falsehood.
The Lead Industry Association (LIA) promoted lead paint in a 1930
booklet: "White lead paint is widely used for home interiors."
Accompanying illustrations showed several home interiors
freshly-painted with lead.
There were warnings against such practices from within the lead
industry. In 1933, Robert Kehoe, chief medical scientist at the
Ethyl Corporation (which was at that time busy providing millions
of tons of toxic lead to the nation's children via gasoline)
urged in the JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION that
"strenuous efforts must be devoted to eliminating lead from
[children's] environment." Kehoe was specifically referring to
Nevertheless, in 1938 the LIA began a multi-year nationwide
"White Lead Promotion Campaign." The purpose of the campaign was
to "dispel fear or apprehension" about using lead-based paint in
your home. Three years later, in 1941, the secretary of the LIA,
Felix Wormser, noted that the campaign was helping: "[I]n the
long run [the campaign] will share in dispelling anxiety about
[lead's] use. In any event the problem remains serious for our
industry. Hardly a day passes but what this office has to devote
some attention to lead poisoning," Wormser said.
In December 1943 TIME magazine reported on a medical study of
children poisoned by lead-based paint used on toys, cribs and
window sills. The result was permanently reduced IQ, with
learning disabilities, among the children.
Felix Wormser of the LIA took the offensive; in a response to the
TIME article, Wormser claimed that the connection between lead
poisoning in infancy and later mental retardation had never been
proven. For the next 15 years this was the LIA's position --permanent
injury to children from sub-lethal lead poisoning had
not been proven.
Wormser's position was scientifically indefensible in 1941.
Wormser's position was insupportable. Robert Kehoe informed the
head of the LIA that in his own work he had observed "serious
mental retardation in children that have recovered from lead
poisoning." Kehoe argued that Wormser's position was not
consistent with the available facts: "Unfortunately for Wormser's
thesis, comparable results [i.e., mental retardation] have been
obtained in almost every other area of the United States where
there have been facilities that enable accurate investigation of
this type to be made," Kehoe wrote.
By the 1950s, the lead and paint industries both acknowledged
that their products were poisoning children, and their defense
took a new turn. In its 1959 annual report the LIA noted that
"lead poisoning, or the threat of it, means thousands of items of
unfavorable publicity each year."
"This is particularly true," the LIA report continued, "since
most cases of lead poisoning today are in children, and anything
sad that happens to a child is meat for newspaper editors and is
gobbled up by the public. It makes no difference that it is
essentially a problem of slums, a public welfare problem. Just
the same the publicity hits us where it hurts," the LIA report
said, clearly implying that it SHOULD make a difference that only
slum children were being poisoned.
This became the lead industry's main line of argument: lead only
harmed slum children. In 1955 the LIA's director of health and
safety went on record saying, "Childhood lead poisoning is common
enough to constitute perhaps my major 'headache,' this being in
part due to the very poor prognosis in many such cases, and also
to the fact that the only real remedy lies in educating a
relatively ineducable category of parents. It is mainly a slum
problem with us." To summarize the Lead Industry Association's
argument: The poisoning of children cannot be remedied because of
parents who live in slums and cannot be educated. In short, lead
poisoning is the parents' fault.
More next week.
--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 Richard Rabin, "Warnings Unheeded: A History of Child Lead
Poisoning," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH Vol. 79, No. 12
(December 1989), pgs. 1668-1674.
 John C. Burnham, "Biomedical Communication and the Reaction
to the Queensland [Australia] Childhood Lead Poisoning Cases
Elsewhere in the World," MEDICAL HISTORY Vol. 43 (1999), pgs.
 Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, "'Cater to the Children':
The Role of the Lead Industry in a Public Health Tragedy,
1900-1955," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH Vol. 90, No. 1
(January 2000), pgs. 36-46.
 Howard W. Mielke and Patrick L. Reagan, "Soil Is an Important
Pathway of Human Lead Exposure," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH
PERSPECTIVES Vol. 106 Supplement 1 (February 1998), pgs. 217-229.
 Bruce P. Lanphear and others, "The Contribution of
Lead-Contaminated House Dust and Residential Soil to Children's
Blood Lead Levels," ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH SECTION A Vol. 79
(1998), pgs. 51-68.
 Bruce P. Lanphear and others, "Lead-Contaminated House Dust
and Urban Children's Blood Lead Levels," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF
PUBLIC HEALTH Vol. 86, No. 10 (October 1996), pgs. 1416-1421.
 National Research Council, MEASURING LEAD EXPOSURE IN
INFANTS, CHILDREN AND OTHER SENSITIVE POPULATIONS (Washington,
D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993), pg. 25.
 Richard A. Oppel, Jr., "Rhode Island Sues Makers of Lead
Paint," NEW YORK TIMES October 14, 1999, pg. A18.
Descriptor terms: lead; paint; children's health; national lead;
lead industry association; lia;