In Providence, R.I., a landmark lawsuit is now in progress. The suit is about lead, a toxin that virtually covers the Earth and which has poisoned hundreds of thousands of children during the last century. In Rhode Island, it is estimated that 98,000 children have been exposed to high levels of lead from lead-based paint used to cover toys, cribs, woodwork, windowsills, and walls through the 1940s and beyond. Nationally, one of every 20 children is estimated to have elevated blood-lead levels and, therefore, is at risk for neurological, behavioral, and physical disorders ranging from learning disabilities to profound mental retardation.
The suit, brought in 2000 by the State Attorney General, Sheldon White-house, is against the lead industry and its trade group, the Lead Industries Association. The state is suing the lead industry for the recovery of many millions of dollars in costs for the medical treatment, special education needs, welfare, de-leading of housing, and other related damages that have bled the state's coffers over the past decades due to lead.
The trial raises the question of how a known neurotoxin like leada substance that has been known to poison workers in a host of trades throughout historycould have become such a ubiquitous poison threatening children. Literally hundreds of millions of dollars are potentially at stake as answers to the old Watergate questionswhat did the companies know about lead paint's dangers to children and when did they know itwill help determine liability and responsibility.
But the case transcends Rhode Island. More than 36 municipalities, including New York City and Chicago, and up to 40 state attorneys general are watching closely as this drama unfolds. A number of municipalities have filed suit already and many, many more are planning to do so if Rhode Island is successful. Compared with the other cases, Rhode Island's case has gone the farthest in the court system, with a jury actually hearing testimony.
A number of years ago, in 1997, the New York City Law Department asked me and Jerry Markowitz, adjunct professor of sociomedical sciences at Mailman School of Public Health and professor of history at John Jay College, to help the agency evaluate a huge amount of materials the city had accumulated through a suit that began in the late 1980s against the lead pigment manufacturers and continues today. The agency had accumulated thousands of internal company documents detailing the industry's activities.
For historians of public health, seeing internal company documents about such a pressing public health issue was enticing and we began a historical excavation project unlike anything we had previously been involved in. Through our other books and articles on the history of occupational and environmental diseases such as silicosis and leaded gasoline, we analyzed mounds of government documents in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and scientific papers in libraries and university collections. But we rarely had the opportunity to get a first-hand look at the ways industries cover up bad news about their products.
It was through our research for the law department that we began to write "Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution," (University of California Press/Milbank Fund, October 2002), our newest book, and one that details the attempts by the chemical and lead industries to deceive Americans about the dangers their deadly products present to workers, the public, and consumers. What evolved was a bruising story of cynical and cruel disregard for health and human rights, disturbing conclusions based on a remarkable cache of documents.
What we uncovered was a long history of knowledge about the dangers of lead paint to children stretching back to 1904 when Australian investigators reported that children had developed severe convulsions and many had died after sucking on or eating lead dust from the lead-paint covered walls and porches of their homes. By 1918, American physicians detailed the horrors of children dying convulsive deaths after ingesting lead paint from the woodwork, windowsills, and walls of their homes.
What we found was truly disturbing, for as information about lead's toxic qualities unfolded, the industry response was not to inform the public of danger or to substitute non-toxic pigments. Rather, the manufacturers worked to persuade Americans from the second decade of the 20th century through the end of the 1940s to use its deadly product in places in the home children could easily reach, touch, and suck on. The industry extolled lead's "healthful qualities" in advertising in magazines, such as Good Housekeeping and National Geographic, and created "paint books" for boys and girls in which verse and pictures taught children how lead paint could be used on their walls, toys, and furniture.
I will be serving as an expert witness for Rhode Island in its suit against the lead industry helping to provide a historical timeline of industry culpability.
In future months and years, Americans will have to weigh many factors in deciding whether the lead poisoning problem should be handled by government regulators or through the court system through suits for damages. But, for the historian of public health, the lead issue raises other ominous questions. How can we in the future protect our children and ourselves from harms done by the introduction of toxins in our environment and how can we hold accountable the industries whose existence is dependent on marketing those toxins?
Dr. David Rosner is professor of sociomedical sciences and history and director of the Center for the History & Ethics of Public Health at the Mailman School of Public Health.