"Cater to the Children": The Role of The Lead Industry in a Public Health Tragedy, 1900-1955

Markowitz, Gerald E.; Rosner, David K.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is estimated that 1 of every 20 children in the United States suffers from subclinical lead poisoning, and a recent article in Science argues that "paint appears to be the major source of childhood lead poisoning in the United States.'. Yet it is only during the past 15 years that the history of this tragic situation has been addressed in any detail, primarily through the documentation of childhood lead poisoning in the public health and medical literature of the first half of the 20th century. Here we analyze the role and influence of the lead industry in shaping popular and professional opinion about lead and lead paint products. Specifically, we discuss how the Lead Industries Association (LIA, the trade group representing lead pigment manufacturers) and its member companies sought to assuage growing public and professional concerns about the dangers to children of leadbased paint. Often employing the image of children themselves, the LIA and its members engaged in aggressive marketing and advertising campaigns to persuade the public of their product's appropriateness for indoor use. While some readers of the Journal might
put the onus on the public health community for not doing more to stop the use of leadbased paint in homes, schools, hospitals, and other interior spaces where children were exposed, we argue that primary responsibility lies elsewhere. The continuing use of lead paint into and after the 1950s cannot be understood without an appreciation of the enormous resources the lead industry devoted to allaying public health concerns from the 1920s through the early 1950s. Whatever responsibility the public health community had for this tragedy pales in comparison with the power and determination of the industry in perpetuating the use of lead-based paint. The lead industry, as a sponsor of research and as a clearinghouse of information about lead, was positioned to be in the forefront of efforts to prevent lead exposure in children. Instead, the industry placed its own economic interests ahead of the welfare of the nation's children.



Also Published In

American Journal of Public Health

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Academic Units
Sociomedical Sciences
Published Here
February 6, 2013