That was the marketing line that the former National Lead Co. used decades ago to sell lead-based household paints. Yet we now know that lead was poisoning millions of children and permanently damaging their brains. Tens of thousands of children died, and countless millions were left mentally impaired.
One boy, Sam, born in Milwaukee in 1990, “thrived as a baby,” according to his medical record. But then, as a toddler, he began to chew on lead paint or suck on fingers with lead dust, and his blood showed soaring lead levels.
Sam’s family moved homes, but it was no use. At age 3, he was hospitalized for five days because of lead poisoning, and in kindergarten his teachers noticed that he had speech problems. He struggled through school, and doctors concluded that he had “permanent and irreversible” deficiencies in brain function.
Sam’s story appears in “Lead Wars,” a book by Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner published this year that chronicles the monstrous irresponsibility of companies in the lead industry over the course of the 20th century. Eventually, over industry protests, came regulation and the removal of lead from gasoline. As a result, lead levels of U.S. children have declined 90 percent in the past few decades, and scholars have estimated that, as a result, children’s IQs on average have risen at least two points and perhaps more than four.
So what are the lessons from the human catastrophe of lead poisoning over so many decades?
Alarm about endocrine disruptors once was a fringe scientific concern, but increasingly has moved mainstream. There is still uncertainty and debate about the risk posed by individual chemicals, but there is growing concern about the risk of endocrine disruptors in general — particularly to fetuses and children. There is less concern about adults.
These are the kinds of threats that we in journalism are not very good at covering. We did a wretched job covering risks from lead and tobacco in the early years; instead of watchdogs, we were lap dogs.
Andrea C. Gore, the editor of Endocrinology, published an editorial asserting that corporate interests are abusing science today with endocrine disruptors the way they once did with lead: for the “production of uncertainty.”
She added that the evidence is “undeniable: that endocrine-disrupting chemicals pose a threat to human health.”
When scientists feud, it’s hard for the rest of us to know what to do. But I’m struck that many experts in endocrinology, toxicology or pediatrics aren’t waiting for regulatory changes. They don’t heat food in plastic containers, they reduce their use of plastic water bottles, and they try to give their kids organic food to reduce exposure to pesticides.
So a question for big chemical companies: Are you really going to follow the model of tobacco and lead and fight regulation every step of the way, once more risking our children’s futures?