By Erika Mills ~
This year, October 24–30 is National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week. Exposure to lead can cause neurological and cognitive issues, kidney damage, gastrointestinal problems, infertility, intellectual disability and behavioral issues in children (who are particularly vulnerable), and in some cases, death. For much of the 20th century, lead was pervasive. The metal was found in household paints, consumer products, factories, leaded pipes, and gasoline, among other places. It contaminated the air, soil, drinking water, and food supply. Lead was practically unavoidable, especially in low-income neighborhoods. Today, thanks to the work of ordinary citizens and concerned scientists who went up against lead industries, housing authorities, and politicians, there is much less lead in our homes and the environment. Still, more progress is needed to ensure everyone’s safety, as we continue to see in the news.
The history of community action against the dangers of lead is explored in the online exhibition, This Lead Is Killing Us: A History of Citizens Fighting Lead Poisoning in their Communities, guest curated by Richard M. Mizelle, Jr, PhD, from the University of Houston.
Here are a few items featured in the exhibition, which highlight important stories from over a century of efforts against this grave public health threat.
Early 20th century factories were dangerous places to work, and not just because of the risk of accidents. Several industries used lead to manufacture products, including printing, battery manufacturing, mining, paint, and enameling. Physician and occupational health pioneer Alice Hamilton, who authored Hygiene of the Printing Trades, studied the effects of exposure to industrial metals and chemicals. She published benchmark reports on lead poisoning in workers and helped raise awareness of workplace hazards.
The federal government banned the consumer use of lead-based paint in 1978. Prior to that, manufacturers added lead pigments to the paints that decorated houses, toys, and other goods. Millions of people were exposed to lead through toxic dust and paint chips in their homes.
Starting in the 1960s, civil rights activists fought to remove lead paint from public housing and inner city homes. Housing officials suggested the toxic paint used in public housing was the lead industry’s problem. The lead industry argued that poor maintenance and tenants’ lack of personal responsibility were to blame for the danger. Little was done to remediate the situation. However, activism led to more government action. Agencies including the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (a precursor to the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education) produced educational materials like The Flake and His Secret Plan, teaching citizens about the dangers of lead poisoning and how to prevent them.
Look here for more information on National Lead Poisoning Prevention Week.
To explore other stories about the history of lead poisoning, visit This Lead is Killing Us online.
Erika Mills is part of the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.