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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Secret Life of Lead, part 3

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood discusses the history of lead paint in the U.S., and the challenges scientists face when they conduct lead research. Science, though, has provided the basis for all public policy decisions limiting lead in the environment. Dr. Bruce Lanphear’s new study will examine the effects of extremely low levels of lead on children. But recruiting women for this new project isn t an easy task.


CURWOOD: It’s Living On Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: Nineteen twenty-seven. “The Jazz Singer” wows audiences as the first talking feature film. Charles Lindbergh flies the first solo crossing of the Atlantic from New York to Paris. And in the face of growing evidence that lead paint is dangerous, especially to children, European nations are banning it in homes. But in the U.S., lead paint companies are politicking to keep their product on the market. Historian David Rosner.

ROSNER: 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: While blaming the victims, the industry also moves to stifle the scientists who document the dangers of lead paint. When Randolph Byers, a pediatrician at Harvard Medical School, publishes his 1943 study showing substantial long-term harm from lead exposure, the lead industry threatens him with lawsuits and effectively silences him. In 1979, another Harvard researcher, Herbert Needleman, shows that supposedly safe levels of lead exposure in childhood correlate with learning disabilities and diminished IQ’s. The lead industry fires back. Two university–based scientists supported by the industry charge Dr. Needleman with scientific misconduct. He’s forced to defend himself in front of his funding agency, the National Institutes of Health, and his efforts to get tenured in academia are threatened. Eventually, Dr. Needleman’s research is verified. But the message was clear, says Don Ryan, executive director of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning: don’t mess with the lead industry.

RYAN: Every step of the way, the lead industry challenged the scientific evidence, ridiculed the reality of lead’s low level health effects, and basically, claimed this problem was being completely overblown by scientists.

CURWOOD: Lead is still a risky topic for scientists who investigate it today, scientists like Bruce Lanphear at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. Dr Lanphear says, at first, his work was pretty much ignored by the lead industry.

LANPHEAR: And, in fact, I always used to hear some of the more senior researchers complain about the lead industry getting involved in negative ways with their research. And they would say the lead industry sort of like it was a mafia. And I never really was aware of it, so I never quite believed it.

CURWOOD: That is, until Dr. Lanphear started to publish results showing that even very low levels of lead can reduce IQs. At that point, he says, his nomination to the lead advisory board at the Centers for Disease Control hit a roadblock.

LANPHEAR: Beginning in March of last year, I heard from a CDC official that while I had been nominated for over a year, that the lead industry was visiting with Tommy Thompson, or Tommy Thompson’s office, and putting forward their own nominations. And it was about a month or two later that he called me up and was very apologetic. And he said, you know, I’m sorry but we’re not going to be able to approve your nomination.

CURWOOD: Tommy Thompson is secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services which oversees the CDC. A department spokesperson would not discuss specific appointments but defended the nomination process and said nominees are chosen to represent a spectrum of viewpoints. Dr. Lanphear says he understands why the lead industry might feel threatened by his findings.

LANPHEAR: For example, in Rhode Island, if it’s recognized that children with blood lead levels over 10 are adversely affected by lead exposure, you may have three to four thousand children a year. Well, if it’s over five micrograms per deciliter, then you probably increase it by ten-fold. So, it’s fifty thousand to a hundred thousand children, and that’s just in one state. If there’s no threshold of safety, well, it’s millions of children every year in the United States. Millions upon millions of children. And so you can begin to see rather quickly, if you add up that numbers, that the lead industry doesn’t want that research, our research, to be recognized as valid.

LAWYER (FROM TRIAL): Good morning members of the jury. Like Mr. Scott, I also want to thank you for the time, and the effort, and the interest that you have shown in this case…

CURWOOD: In 1999, the state of Rhode Island took the lead industry to court to hold it accountable for poisoning tens of thousands of children. Both Bruce Lanphear and Kim Dietrich testified about the harm the toxin can cause when the case came to trial in 2002.

When I visited Dr. Dietrich in his Cincinnati office, he took out a bright yellow plastic container. It looked like a big lunch box, but it was covered with poison stickers. Inside, a few vials cushioned in foam. Dr. Dietrich held one up to the light.


DIETRICH: In the interior of homes, the clearance level for dust on floors is 40 micrograms of lead per square foot. And this would equal or exceed the clearance level, the EPA clearance level, for dust on floors.

CURWOOD: I don’t see nothing.

DIETRICH: That’s right. That’s the point, isn’t it? But it’s really there. There’s 40 micrograms of lead paint dust, or lead dust, in this vial. And so, you can see how difficult it is to detect, and, also, for parents to realize there is a hazard there and to work to eliminate it.

CURWOOD: This stuff is potent.

DIETRICH: Yeah. You can see why they didn’t want me to show that to the jurors.

CURWOOD: Industry attorneys argued that lead would never occur in such a pure form in the home, but would always be accompanied by some amount of dust. This demonstration was therefore misleading, and should not be allowed as evidence. The judge agreed and the jury never saw Dr. Dietrich’s vials. The trial ended with a hung jury in October of 2002. The lead industry has failed to respond to repeated interview requests from Living on Earth about the Rhode Island case and lead research. But Sheldon Whitehouse, who tried the case as attorney general of Rhode Island, didn’t mince words when he spoke to the press after the trial.

WHITEHOUSE: Every day, more kids are lead poisoned in Rhode Island. And the longer it takes to bring this case to conclusion, the more kids remain lead poisoned. And the longer the defendants are intransigent about doing one darn thing to try to be helpful in Rhode Island, as opposed to litigious, then the longer it is and the more it is that children continue to be poisoned.

CURWOOD: There’s a personal reason for the passion of Sheldon Whitehouse over what he calls the wrongs of the lead industry.


CURWOOD: Hi, you must be Sheldon Whitehouse.


CURWOOD: Hi, I’m Steve Curwood, from Living on Earth.

CURWOOD: I met Mr. Whitehouse in Providence on a rainy spring morning, and we sat around the dining table of his exquisitely restored Victorian. Those renovations had created a beautiful home but, as it turns out, they had also poisoned his children with lead.

WHITEHOUSE: You know, a parent’s highest obligation is to protect his or her children. And when you find that right in your own home where they’re supposed to be safest, in fact they’re getting poisoned, you feel horrible, frankly.

CURWOOD: And then you get mad?

WHITEHOUSE: No, I don’t think there was really much to get mad about. It’s one of those systems things where it shouldn’t have happened. But it doesn’t just happen to me and my family. It happens to families throughout Rhode Island. It’s one of those things where nobody brings it up. But once it comes up--if you’re in a group of employed, upper middle class families, with cars and houses and taking their kids to schools, and private schools and all that sort of stuff--you start talking about it, and you find out people will admit, oh yeah, it happened to my daughter, too. Yep, my son had a high lead level. It’s sort of a, it’s almost like a dirty little unspoken secret that this is happening around here. I can see why people don’t talk about it because it’s embarrassing. You feel like you’ve failed as a parent when that sort of thing happens.

CURWOOD: Wait a second, the lead industry might say that, too. All these people whose kids have been poisoned, they should have known that, they should have conducted themselves in a better fashion, it’s their fault.

WHITEHOUSE: And they have been saying that. They’ve been saying that for a long time. They began saying it, most offensively, when it was poor black children in urban ghettos in Maryland. So that the rest of America could go by and say, look, we take care of our children, we don’t live in ghettos, and we don’t let our children eat lead paint chips the size of potato chips. So it’s not our problem. It’s okay. And what we’re finding out is that that ain’t so, it never was so. But there’s always been that pressure from the industry to try to marginalize the people who are suffering from this problem. And that has two effects. One is that it understates the problem dramatically. And the second is that people don’t feel that they need to pay attention to it. So, do I feel responsible for taking care of my children? I absolutely do. Was it my fault that this happened? Not entirely, but once you step into the fault arena, I think there’s a fair amount to go around in different places. We think landlords have a role, and that’s why we’ve been going hard after landlords in Rhode Island to make them clean up. But, by God, these paint companies have some responsibility, as well. And they are pretending that they have none and that’s just wrong.

CURWOOD: Sheldon Whitehouse’s term as attorney general has ended. But he predicts Rhode Island will continue to fight the lead companies in court. He draws an analogy to the tobacco liability cases which were won after repeated efforts and needed sound scientific research to counter the claims of the tobacco companies. Right now, Mr. Whitehouse says, research on lead is of critical importance to counter what he calls misleading information from the lead companies.

WHITEHOUSE: And it’s critical from a public health point of view that we lower the exposure of children to lead. And you can’t do that sensibly unless you’ve got the right information about how dangerous it is. So, this whole question about its toxicity has been an incredible saga. And we’re finally getting, I think, down to the point where we’re closing in on viewing it as being toxic at almost any level.


CURWOOD: Back at University Hospital in Cincinnati, Amy Kalkbrenner is still in the obstetrics clinic, as part of the work to get more information on the dangers of exposing children to miniscule amounts of lead. You may remember that she’s the project director for Dr. Lanphear’s new study that plans to follow 400 children from before birth through at least their early years. Ms. Kalkbrenner and a nurse are recruiting pregnant women for that study.

KALKBRENNER: Melissa, we’re going to give them juice boxes while they’re doing the consents.

CURWOOD: The consent process involves screening candidates and explaining what’s involved if they sign on.

KALKBRENNER: The consent’s really long. Down the road, we were going to give them water. We didn’t give them water yet, but we have all these juice boxes from another study. (LAUGHS)

CURWOOD: The juice boxes help ensure the women will be able to give a urine sample at the end of the interview. Ms. Kalkbrenner hopes to recruit at least a few of the 15 women who are here today for their first prenatal visit but it’s slow going.

KALKBRENNER: Do you want to find out if you are eligible? Not interested? Okay, thank you, Tisha. Did you want do find out whether you are eligible first or are you pretty sure you don’t want to do it? You’ve only been staying in a home for just the last couple of weeks. We’re looking for people who have been in the same home for three months, because we’re going to looking at your exposure to different chemicals in your home. So, I think you wouldn’t be eligible for this study today. I’m sorry but you’re not actually eligible. We’re looking for people who will be living in the same home during their pregnancy. Kind of anti-climactic. (LAUGHS) Okay, bye, thanks.

CURWOOD: By the end of the morning, Ms. Kalkbrenner has plenty of no’s and ineligibles, and a few maybes. But she says it’ll all work out.

KALKBRENNER: I recently have been accused by my staff of being an optimist but I always think, well, we’ll just get better from here. You know, next time, I don’t know, have more people we’re contacting, we’ll be more prepared. (LAUGHS). We’ll have that special smile that has somebody say yes instead of no. (LAUGHS) I don’t know what it is.


CURWOOD: In a small apartment in a Cincinnati suburb, technician Rick Hutchinson is conducting an environmental survey of the home of a woman who has agreed to be in the study.


HUTCHINSON: So what I’ll do here is I’ll mark off with tape the area that I’m going to sample here.

CURWOOD: He takes out a baby-wipe and methodically rubs it across the windowsill. It picks up dust and a few paint chips. He puts the wipe in a plastic vial that will be sent to a lab for lead analysis, along with the other samples gathered during a two-hour evaluation of this home.

HUTCHINSON: We have just one more dust wipe sample to take, and that’ll be off the kitchen.

CURWOOD: Stephanie Callahan’s apartment is well-maintained, with white walls and wood furniture. Other than around the windows, there’s no flaking paint anywhere in the apartment. This mom-to-be is a 23-year-old respiratory therapist. Relaxing on the couch with a cat in her lap, she says she knew right away that she wanted to be part of the study.

CALLAHAN: When I received the information in the mail, I was very interested. Probably just because of being a first-time mom. And also, I currently rent an apartment, and knowing that my first home was probably going to be an older home, it appealed to me just because I wanted to learn. To make sure that when I do get a home, and it’s an older home, making sure that there aren’t any things to worry about, such as lead or mercury, things that I would never even think about. Also, to get tips on, you know, household safety, maybe things that you generally don’t think about.

CURWOOD: Unless she conducts her own testing, Ms. Callahan will never know the results of the lead assessment of her home. Based on a random assignment, her apartment will either receive extensive lead abatement or childhood safety improvements. And her baby will be placed in one of two groups that will be monitored and their development compared. Stephanie Callahan says for her, the most important thing is the health and safety of her baby.

CALLAHAN: That was the whole reason to get into the study. I’m going to be a mom, and I want to do the best job that I can in raising this child.

CURWOOD: And so our story ends as it began, with a mother concerned about her child and the dangers from exposure to lead. Think back to Tony, now aged 22, and his mother Diana. The tragedy for them is that they can never go back to before Tony’s lead poisoning, to before his troubles in school, to before the gunshot wounds and troubles with the law. And his mother may never be able to stop worrying about her son. Stephanie Callahan can be grateful that, thanks in part to the research that involved Tony, the federal standards of lead safety have been tightened. That means that her unborn child will likely face far less lead in the home than Tony did. But Dr. Lanphear is still trying to find out if that will be safe enough. He should start to get some answers in a couple of years. And the original cohort of his colleague Kim Dietrich will keep revealing more data as it heads into its third decade.

Along the way, the team will have to secure continued funding, keep those cohorts together, and perhaps face more professional criticism. As a father of three, Dr. Lanphear feels a special urgency to find some answers.

LANPHEAR: I’m trying to do this because I think it will give children an opportunity to succeed. It will give them a better chance at having a healthy life. Children stand for hope. There’s always some promise that they hold out.

[MUSIC: DJ Cam “Friends and Enemies” Back to Mine/Everything but the Girl (Ultra 2001)]

CURWOOD: Over the months and years ahead, Living On Earth will keep checking in with Dr. Lanphear, Dr. Dietrich, Ms. Kalkbrenner and other members of the Cincinnati lead research team. We’ll tell you what they find out, and how they go about revealing the secret life of lead.



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