America's 'Lead Wars' Go Beyond Flint, Mich.: 'It's Now Really Everywhere'

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On looking back at patterns of health problems that doctors now think could have been caused by lead poisoning

Rosner: We can all remember in the early '70s and '80s when we were concerned about issues like hyperactivity in schools, attention deficit disorder, behavioral problems. Some researchers now — and it's hard to figure out if this is accurate — argue that the crime epidemic was partly due to lead exposures, because of the inability of kids to restrain behaviors. ...

So there are all these arguments. Any individual issue is hard to say is due to lead, but ... when we compare groups of children who have lead in their blood and lead in their bones and lead in their teeth, historically those kids have bigger problems than kids who don't. And that's what we really know. And they have problems in school. They have problems learning. They don't do as well on tests. They have inability to follow lines. So what we know as a collection of children, there's a problem.

On the Lead Industries Association's racist PR campaign in the 1950s

Rosner: One of the interesting things and terrifying things and horrifying things about this whole story is the use of race as a means of, in some sense, ignoring what was known for close to a century. In the 1950s we found these documents and these letters between people in the Lead Industries Association and even the federal government that basically say that the problem of lead poisoning will exist until we can get rid of all our old housing, and that will never happen. The second point that they make is that it's only — this is their quote so please understand that — it's only a problem among "negro and Puerto Rican families," and that it's probably due to the "ignorance of those families" that there is a problem with lead poisoning.

Markowitz: That they were not educated enough to keep lead away from their children.

On the documents they found that show the lead industry was knowingly misleading the public

Markowitz: The lead industry went around the country saying to doctors, "You haven't proved completely that lead is the cause of children going into convulsions and children dying. ... You need to do much more sophisticated studies. You need X-rays. You need a variety of other techniques." And meanwhile, the medical community was saying the number of cases we have is a vast underestimate of the number of children, because the lead poisoning symptoms mimicked the results of high fevers and other kinds of conditions. But the lead industry was saying the opposite. They were saying, "Lead poisoning was overstated and that doctors were misdiagnosing children."

Rosner: This is despite the fact that they were collecting articles from all over the country that indicated that there were reports of children being poisoned by lead. ... And they were collecting that and talking about that in their meetings, that they had 500 articles from around the country, I think, it was 1932.

by Jacquelyn Martin/AP / via NPR

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