Early in the 20th century, most countries in Europe banned the use of lead in paint, based on its harmful effects on children’s health. But the lead industry in the U.S. was just beginning to flourish, despite its knowledge of lead’s poisonous effects. Host Steve Curwood talks with David Rosner, co-author of a book on the history and complicity of the lead industry called: "Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution".
CURWOOD: Up until the 1950s, if you wanted a clean and bright environment to show off your home, pure white lead was the paint of choice and the Little Dutch Boy was its poster child. The lead industry touted its paints as healthy and safe, and spent millions to cement that image in consumers’ minds, even though lead paint had been banned from homes in Europe in the 1920s. And authors David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz say that for decades paint manufacturers had full knowledge of lead’s harmful effects on children. Their new book is “Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution.” In it, Markowitz and Rosner uncover numerous industry documents that reveal a deliberate campaign to repaint the image of lead paint. David Rosner joins me now from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York City. Mr. Rosner, welcome to Living on Earth.
ROSNER: Thank you very much. It’s nice to be here.
CURWOOD: Tell me, when was lead poisoning first documented in children?
ROSNER: Well, in children it really began to be documented at the turn of the 20th century. In about 1904, Australian researchers began to notice children who were dying from classic symptoms of industrial lead poisoning, and they began to document death after death, and they identified railings of homes, and walls of rooms, and painted surfaces in the house as the major source of the lead for the children.
And so in the United States, they began also to identify the woodwork, and toys, and cribs that were painted with white lead, what was called white lead, as the source of this poisoning, so it was fairly dramatic. And the children were convulsing, were squirming around on the floor, they lost their eyesight. They ultimately died horribly, horribly terrible deaths. It’s a dismal history.
CURWOOD: In the course of your research, what did you find to be the strongest piece of evidence showing the lead industry knew exactly what their product was doing to children, that it was harmful to children?
ROSNER: Well, literally, from the first moments of the organization of the Lead Industries Association, discussions about lead poisoning among children are, you know, very, very significant. They literally discuss in their meetings that lead poisoning is becoming prevalent, and they began to develop a campaign that literally tries to minimize the danger by saying that these are children who are relatively few in number, and the ones that are damaged are generally kids who are not being supervised by their parents, or, alternatively, have a disease called pica, which is a craving for non-food substances.
CURWOOD: How did the lead industry choose to handle the growing problem of childhood lead poisoning?
ROSNER: Well, one was to ignore it and to focus the public’s attention on industrial lead poisoning that they believed could become, that was something they could handle. The second way was literally publicizing the healthful and sanitary qualities of lead, rather than the dangerous and noxious qualities of lead.
In the 1920s there began a campaign that they called “Catering to the Children” in which they would advertise and promote lead as an essential ingredient in the modern household.
In the 1950s and 1960s the industry will promote the idea that the dangers from lead are only for those children who are living in slums, and who are being raised by what they call – and these are words that they use – ineducable Hispanic and Negro families. So, you start seeing the kind of defense of the industry becoming “It’s not our fault. It’s not that we did anything wrong. It’s just the fact that families, largely poor families living in slums, are irresponsible in that they don’t keep their houses clean, they don’t clean up. And hence, it’s not really our problem so much as the problems of the landlord later, and the parents in the first case.”
CURWOOD: Now, the lead industry used advertising to a great extent, but what other avenues did they follow to try to build public confidence in lead?
ROSNER: Well, they would sometimes visit doctors who were reporting on lead cases and tell them that they were not really seeing it, or challenge their clinical abilities. Sometimes they’d actually visit clinicians who wrote about lead poisoning and would threaten them.
One very famous case is the case of Randolph Byers, who was a researcher at Harvard, who wrote an article in 1943 talking about the long-term effects of lead poisoning on children, and pointing out that lead poisoned children, even after they were detoxified, or the lead was taken out of their bodies, were permanently damaged, and that it caused problems in reading, perceptual problems, et cetera. And his argument gained a lot of national attention in Time magazine.
And in his memoirs, he talks about his confrontation with the industry; that when he published that article the Lead Association and its lawyers descended upon him in Boston and, essentially, threatened him with lawsuits. So you can see that not only were there benign attempts at promoting lead, but there are also less benign, and actually malignant attempts of intimidating researchers.
CURWOOD: From the lead industry’s own records, what efforts did they make themselves to document the danger of lead to children?
ROSNER: Very little. In fact, from 1928 through the 1950s, the issue of lead poisoning’s effect on young children was buried. So the industry really didn’t do anything until the 1950s. So in the 1950s, the gentleman I talked about before, Randolph Byers, following that infamous meeting when he saw himself as being threatened by lawsuits, he was actually given a grant by the industry, and for the next ten years he published no more than two articles, both of which did not really ever address again the severity of the lead poisoning problem in children. So clearly the industry was intent on, in some sense, capturing the loyalty of the researchers who were doing work.
CURWOOD: What was the turning point in the lead paint saga in the United States?
ROSNER: Certainly, the civil rights movement of the 1960s was absolutely critical in making lead paint poisoning a really public issue. You had all sorts of groups throughout the nation that began to see lead paint poisoning in poor people’s communities as another symptom of the exploitation of those communities and the oppression of those communities. So that’s very critical.
The other part of it is that you start developing a whole cadre of researchers who were independent of the lead industry in the 1960s. So this whole generation of researchers all began to look for lower and lower levels, and see that lead, at even lower levels, is beginning to affect children. And this was a really important turning point, when suddenly the world of lead poisoning changed from being seen as only a problem for those kids who were convulsing, and dying, and having horrible, horrible seizures, to children who were all around, and children who were exposed to much lower levels of lead.
[MUSIC: Deadly Avenger “The Bayou” BACK TO MINE (Ultra, 2001)]
CURWOOD: David Rosner is professor of history and public health at Columbia University, and co-author of the book “Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution.” Thanks for taking this time to talk with me today.
ROSNER: Thank you very much.
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