How the Lead Industry Lied to the Public for DecadesHistorians in the News
tags: environmental history, lead, lead poisoning
Lead is a dangerous neurotoxin. Researchers have known that for decades. But the substance stuck around in everyday products like paint and gasoline for decades.
One big reason: The lead industry spent years using racial bias to divert public attention away from the dangers of the toxin and minimized the impact of mounting evidence indicating lead was poisoning children with devastating effects.
Health officials warn that there is no safe level of lead in children.
Gerald Markowitz is a history professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the City University of New York. He’s also an expert in occupational safety and health.
In 2002, he co-wrote “Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution,” which describes attempts by the lead industry to deceive Americans about the dangers its products posed to the public.
As part of The Missouri Independent and NPR Midwest Newsroom's collaborative investigation of high levels of lead in the children in Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, Niara Savage interviewed Markowitz about the lead industry's tactics and the lasting implications for public perception and policy.
Savage: What is the Lead Industries Association and how did it control the flow of information to the public?
Markowitz: The Lead Industries Association was the trade association for various lead companies, they could be lead mining companies, they could be lead smelter companies, they could be lead pigment manufacturers. And the reports that started coming out in the 19-teens and 1920s about lead poisoning of children was of great concern to the Lead Industries Association, because it could, of course, affect its sales.
Savage: In your book “Deceit and Denial,” you and co-author David Rosner talk about the way the lead industry manipulated the public's idea of who was at risk of lead poisoning. How did they do it and how did they get away with it?
Markowitz: Well, the way the Lead Industries Association was able to manipulate the perception of lead poisoning was that they defined it as a problem of what they called slums. That is inner cities where the housing was deteriorating and primarily children of color were being exposed to flaking lead off of the walls and ceilings.
Savage: It seems like the 1957 Lead Industries Association's annual meeting was an important moment in the framing of the narrative about lead. What happened there?
Markowitz: At that meeting, the Lead Industries Association Director Manfred Bowditch defined lead poisoning as a problem of slums. And again, these are his words — ineducable parents. In a private letter, he made clear who he meant by ineducable parents. He was talking there, in his words again, as Negro and Puerto Rican parents. And so he was in that meeting really blaming the victims. He was blaming the parents of children for not preventing lead poisoning.