Laura Bliss: Lead Poisoning Politics


By the 1920s, lead was an essential part of the middle-class American home. It was in telephones, ice boxes, vacuums, irons, and washing machines; dolls, painted toys, bean bags, baseballs, and fishing lures. Perhaps most perniciously, it was in gasoline, pipes and paint, the building blocks of urbanization and a growing housing stock.

That was precisely how the lead industry wanted their product to be seen. Despite the fact that lead was known to be toxic as early as the late 19th century, manufacturers and trade groups fiercely marketed it as essential to America’s economic growth and consumer ideals, especially when it came to their walls. Latching onto the nation’s post-Depression affection for clean, bright colors, they were successful.

According to a new paper in the Journal of Urban History by David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, the public health historians and co-authors of The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children, the answer lies at the intersection of politics, class, and race.

Crimes committed against the American population. And like with the recent banking scandals, no greedy, corporate executives were jailed for their crimes.

Building the World That Kills Us
The Politics of Lead, Science, and Polluted Homes, 1970 to 2000
David Rosner
Gerald Markowitz

David Rosner, Center for the History & Ethics of Public Health, Departments of History and Sociomedical Sciences, Columbia University, 722 West 168th Street, Room 934, New York, NY 10032, USA. Email: dr289{at}

One of the most troubling urban health issues is childhood poisoning caused by lead, the widespread environmental toxin. It is in old plumbing fixtures, solder, paint and other building materials in huge quantities. Despite decades of improvements in blood lead levels among America’s children, the continuing presence of lead on the walls of the nation’s older houses and the known neurological effects of low-level exposures presents a classic problem: in light of the enormous costs of detoxifying the nation’s housing, should society remove this toxin in order to prevent future impacts on IQ, attention deficits disorders, and possibly criminal behavior, or do we remove some of the most pernicious sources, such as window sashes and chipped paint to reduce, not eliminate, the risk to children? Throughout the 1970s and 1980s this issue emerged among public health advocates, HUD officials and housing reformers, and community organizers and activists. Who should bear the responsibility for polluted housing: Industry, housing officials, public health officials, landlords or tenants? The battles began during the 1960s and continue to today. In 2001 the high court in Maryland condemned studies conducted by Johns Hopkins researchers that sought to develop methods for the partial remediation of homes, saying they were akin to Nazi human experiments in which children were used as human guinea pigs. This article traces the evolving debate over responsibility for the public health consequences of polluted housing.