How a Doctor Discovered U.S. Walls Were Poisonous

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/2013/03/how-a-doctor-discovered-us- walls-were-poisonous.html
In a monthly column on the PBS NewsHour website, Dr. Howard Markel revisits moments that changed the course of modern medicine. Above: A child with high levels of lead in her blood stands next to a peeling lead paint wall in her family's apartment in New York. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.
Humans have mined and used lead for over 6,000 years. Across time, the pliable, soft metal has been fashioned into tools and utensils, used as a sweetener for wines, and even to provide an extra kick to a gallon of gasoline or add a gleaming sheen to a coat of paint.
Doctors have recognized that high doses of lead are downright poisonous since, at least, the days of Hippocrates. But it was not until March 29, 1979 that a pediatrician and child psychiatrist named Herbert Needleman first documented the dangers of even the lowest forms of lead exposure. This medical detective story is one of many disturbing and intertwining tales told in a fascinating new book, "The Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America's Children," by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner.
Lead interferes with the normal functioning of just about every cell in the body because it chemically displaces elements that are essential to daily life, such as calcium, zinc and iron. So lead can botch up the elegant way red blood cells carry and deliver oxygen, how one moves his muscles or her limbs, and, perhaps most importantly, the transmission of electrical messages by the brain. Because the brains and bodies of young children are still developing and growing on a daily basis, lead is especially harmful to youngsters.
For much of the 20th century, the worst cases of lead poisoning garnered all the attention from doctors. Severe lead poisoning is a bona fide medical emergency characterized by children with horrific seizures that simply do not stop, severely swollen brains, and, too often, death.
Sometime in the late 1950s, however, Dr. Needleman observed that patients with milder cases of lead poisoning kept returning to the emergency room soon after being treated. And when these children would return for follow- up visits, Needleman noted a number of unruly behaviors among many of them.
Sadly, these children lived in homes -- typically unkempt slum houses in the inner city -- riddled with lead paint flaking off the walls and windowsills. Small children, who tend to explore the world with their mouths -- like eating the lead chips because they taste sweet.
When lead paint chips are broken down, one is left with a toxic dust that is easily inhaled. Paint companies were required to remove lead from their products in 1978.
Lead in gasoline wasn't banned by the U.S. government until 1996. Photo courtesy of Flickr user taberandrew.
Nevertheless, more than 38 million homes in the United States contain deteriorating lead painted walls. Landlords refuse to abate these homes because it costs so much money; the renting parents have neither the funds nor access to safer housing elsewhere.
Making matters even worse, for decades, Americans were constantly exposed to lead in the form of lead gasoline fumes. Lead remained a gas additive (it makes engines run smoother) until the U.S government began reducing the lead gas content in 1972 and completely banned it in 1996.
Hypothesizing that no amount of lead was safe, Dr. Needleman focused on the psychological effects of much lower levels of lead poisoning. It was an idea that changed the entire science of environmental toxicology. Rather than studying how much of exposure to a particular toxin it took to kill someone, he insisted on ascertaining the minimum amounts that cause subtle but, nevertheless, damaging effects. Eventually, science and the technology to measure trace but dangerous exposure to environmental toxins caught up with his theory.
Lead typically settles in the bones and teeth of the body. Consequently, Needleman collected the "baby teeth" -- an easy and painless way to gather bone samples-- of first and second graders living in Boston, some of whom had been exposed to a lot of lead and others who had not. What he found was that the children with high dentine lead levels scored far less well on IQ tests than those kids with low lead levels.
He reported these findings in a landmark paper in the New England Journal of Medicine on this very day, some 34 years ago. The research that followed showed how low levels of lead exposure can set in motion a wide range of learning disabilities, anti-social behaviors, and even mental health disorders. As Needleman famously explained, "lead is a brain poison that interferes with the ability to restrain impulses. It's a life experience which gets into biology and increases a child's risk for doing bad things".
Dr. Herbert Needleman. Photo courtesy of the Heinz Awards.
Not surprisingly, Needleman made real enemies among those working in the lead industries who feared the financial ramifications of the lawsuits resulting from tying decades of lead paint exposure to the poor health of millions of children. These corporations waged a 13-year war by ferreting out Needleman's work for every mistake and error.
Hiring a team of scientists, the lead companies and their surrogates accused him of scientific research fraud, falsification and plagiarism. None of these charges stuck. In 1992, the U.S. Office of Research Integrity acknowledged that while some human errors appeared in his published papers, these errors did not refute the results and exonerated Dr. Needleman of all charges of fraud. Fortunately, by this point of time, a large cohort of researchers had reproduced and broadened Needleman's findings.
In 2012, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lowered the acceptable blood lead level to a 5 micrograms/dl, a mere fraction of the acceptable levels only 30 years earlier. In reality, even this seemingly "low" amount represents too high an acceptable level in a child's body and brain. The only safe lead level is no lead.
Despite the overwhelming body of science on this danger, millions of American babies and children are at risk to be poisoned on this anniversary of the discovery of just how damaging lead could be to the developing brain. Who will pay to abate such an environmental hazard -- the landlords, the lead paint producers, the government, everyone -- remains to be seen, as the usual subjects duke it out in courtrooms across America.
For more than a decade, the lead industry, their lawyers and a team of highly paid scientists fought, fumed and sued to discredit Needleman's work. Fortunately, he survived these attacks and the nation's children are the healthier for it. We still have a long way to go in the fight to "get the lead out" of our environment, but Dr. Herbert Needleman's heroic scientific sleuthing made it a great deal more imperative.
Comments:
chris87654 3 hours ago Interesting. Now I wonder if there be a connection between high lead levels and low sagging pants. 13 1 ReplyShare
BlueberryT chris87654 3 hours ago There is apparently a connection between your ignorance and your idiotic comment. 23 1 ReplyShare
Ghettofever BlueberryT 3 minutes ago @BlueberryT, Chris87654 asked an excellent question. Since most of the pant-saggers voted for Barack Obama, you could reasonably question their intellect. 1 EditReplyShare
Mark 34 minutes ago The lesson here is that those with a vested interest may have the financial backing to publicly deny the latest scientific evidence. Lead, tobacco, petroleum, climate change. You get the idea. 20-30 years later it is conventional wisdom but the vested interests are able to delay rational social action for many years. 2 ReplyShare
William Casey 3 hours ago Folks-
The geochemist Clare Patterson is the man who demonstrated pervasive lead contamination in modern society, spanning well beyond the Romans to prehistoric times.
He did so using the same mass spectroscopy that was employed to estimate the age of the Earth, but adapted it to measure lead levels in bone.
Patterson met enormous opposition, but is recognized as the instigation for the 1973 EPA campaign to reduce blood lead levels and the coincident elimination of tetraethyl-lead from fuels.
Dr. Needleman's end of the problem was to show the chronic health effects that Patterson assumed earlier were acting on humans, stemming from acute poisoning incidents.
Bill 2 ReplyShare
Guy an hour ago Just one of the countless man-made products that have plagued us since who known when; all, may I add, in the name of progress. 1 ReplyShare
e2verne an hour ago aside from the racist posts, it is nice to see how many are truly concerned about this problem. Now society has a responsibility to revisit criminal cases from the past, and to re-evaluate persons today, regarding lead exposure as a contributory factor to criminal behavior. If one grew up in a home in New England built anytime before the 1990s, there was probably exposure to high levels of lead in paint if nothing else. 1 ReplyShare
shmerlop an hour ago This is an interesting article, but I have no doubt it will be used as a back door to ban ammunition containing lead.
The studies I've seen on the net indicate that bullets in the ground do NOT leach lead into the water table. Instead, a hard shell of oxidation forms around the bullet, essentially encapsulating it.
This "encapsulation" is easily seen on Civil War lead bullets, which invariably have a hard shell of oxidation around them.
Yes, wildlife will eat lead fragments found in animals shot by poachers and hunters. However, I have to wonder how common this truly is.
Lead shot was banned for hunting waterfowl decades ago, because the lead shot lay on the bottom of ponds and lakes. Ducks, geese and other waterfowl grazing along the bottom scooped it up and it entered their system.
It did NOT leach into the water, however. Also, lead shot is very small, and easily swallowed. Bullets are much larger and would be spit out like a pebble by waterfowl.
Lead poisoning among waterfowl was a common problem. The adoption of non- toxic shot for waterfowl hunting has essentially cured the problem (except in cases where human dredging has exposed old layers of lead shot).
Bear in mind that the worst poisonings occurred in lakes and ponds where waterfowl hunting had been going on for well over a century, perhaps two centuries, chiefly along the eastern seaboard and Midwest.
The West, settled much later, had a much lesser extent.
There is a call for lead shot to be banned for all hunting, to include pheasant, grouse, rabbit, etc. Lead shot lying on the ground quickly oxidizes and forms this oxidized shell.
It requires the animal to eat it, to be affected. This is unlikely as rabbits, grouse, pheasants and other game tend to eat berries, clover, insects and foliage above ground, not near the shot.
I've cleaned enough grouse and rabbits to know what they eat. They're not grazing at ground level, though they will pick up insects off the ground. These insects are large and noticeable because they were moving; lead shot is not likely to be mistaken for such insects.
The ownership and use of firearms is a volatile issue today. I have no doubt that the findings of Dr. Needleman will be used by those who oppose gun ownership to impose their will.
Lead in paint chips, and a century-old bullet lying in the ground, are not the same. One is a proven hazard, while bullets in the soil are relatively harmless.
However, their presence is undoubtedly sensationalized by those who oppose gun ownership. Emotion, not science, rules this issue. see more 0 1 ReplyShare
DAVID ALAN JONES RIDGE 2 hours ago And as you all are in the process of signing a lease or rental agreement for an apartment in an "old" building, you are required to sign a waiver concerning the "possibility" of lead in the building. Concerning my use of the word "old" I would not even have a suspicion arbitrarily what years that would fall under. And in some of the same buildings asbestos was also used so you all would have an overlap here therefore you all would have a double whammy, double jeopardy. For those in this era of construction, are they being tested also for the possibility of asbestos in their bodies. 0 ReplyShare
DAVID ALAN JONES RIDGE 2 hours ago And as you all are in the process of signing a lease or rental agreement for an apartment in an "old" building, you are required to sign a waiver concerning the "possibility" of lead in the building. Concerning my use of the word "old" I would not even have a suspicion arbitrarily what years that would fall under. And in some of the same buildings asbestos was also used so you have an overlap here therefore you all have a double whammy, double jeopardy. For those in this era of construction, are they being tested also for the possibility of asbestos in their bodies. 0 ReplyShare
pcl DAVID ALAN JONES RIDGE 23 minutes ago Lead was used in interior paints up until about WWII, so the interiors of most postwar buildings should be free of it. It wasn't banned in exterior paint until 1978. For either interior or exterior walls, the method of choice for abating it is to side or panel over it with stucco, new siding or (for interiors) Sheetrock. Even if you want to keep your interior plaster and don't like the tackiness of vinyl siding (which, itself, has contained lead at times), stucco or fiber-cement can safely encapsulate the outside while wall coverings (even fiberglass mesh, which can then be plastered) will do the trick inside. Over-zealous attempts to strip off lead paint have also caused acute lead poisoning and contamination, so spending more money won't necessarily make one safer. Interior trim is much trickier; some expensive paints and coatings can encapsulate it, but (carefully) chemically stripping it may be worth the cost to preserve the architectural integrity of an old house.
Unlike lead, asbestos in old houses is not much of a threat
--
Barack Obama, reelected by the dumbest voters in the history of the United
States of America.
  Click to see the full signature.
Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload

and how about mercury? has your friendly dentist been telling you it is safe? In article

I smell a lawsuit or two? see; Mad Hatter he cross-posts.
--
Karma ; what a concept!

Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload
On 4/3/2013 7:05 PM, Jorge wrote:

No, what you didn't include in the quote was the political rant at the very bottom in his signature. That was what he wanted to get across, not that lead was a problem.
I smell a troll, but no lawsuit.
--
I'm never going to grow up.

Add pictures here
<% if( /^image/.test(type) ){ %>
<% } %>
<%-name%>
Add image file
Upload

Site Timeline

HomeOwnersHub.com is a website for homeowners and building and maintenance pros. It is not affiliated with any of the manufacturers or service providers discussed here. All logos and trade names are the property of their respective owners.