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Wearing The Lead Glasses

Lead contamination in New Orleans and beyond.
It is certainly true that paint has long been a source of lead exposure, though the lead industry fought to deny and then obscure this fact, just as vociferously as it later sought to undermine research on pollution derived from leaded gas. In the 1920s, the National Lead Company initiated a campaign for Dutch Boy paint that explicitly targeted children and their parents, with colorful brochures demonstrating all the ways in which a nursery and its furniture and toys could be made brighter with Dutch Boy.

By 1974, the time of Mielke’s garden-soil experiment in Baltimore, public awareness regarding the dangers of lead paint had broken through such evasions. Still, what Mielke’s map showed in 1974 was that paint was not the sole cause of elevated soil-lead in Baltimore. Another major cause was the lead-monoxide dust from vehicular emissions — a superfine dust that accumulated over decades in the ground near heavily trafficked roads. In Baltimore, the meager data available on children’s blood-lead levels made it difficult to compare those levels with urban patterns of soil-lead distribution. Five years later, when Mielke moved his lab to Macalester College, he managed to obtain both soil-lead and blood-lead data through surveys funded by the Minnesota state legislature. This data showed the same dichotomy of inner city versus suburb that he identified in Baltimore. The findings were a professional triumph for Mielke, though not exactly a joyous one. A 1991 segment of the ABC News Prime Time Live features a moving interview with him in which anchor Chris Wallace asks, “How does it make you feel to drive through these neighborhoods and see these children playing in what amounts to hazardous waste sites? And nothing being done about it?”

The camera cuts to Howard, who is wearing the same type of white lab coat I recognize from visits to the soil archive. “It’s a tragedy,” he says, and seems on the verge of tears. “I’d rather be Professor Mielke and stay one step away from it. It’s very hard to take.” 6 The next year, he founded Lead Lab, Inc., a nonprofit that works with communities to solve the problems of lead contamination.

The practice of using maps to chart a disease, and in so doing find clues to its cause, dates at least to the 19th century “ghost map” compiled by Dr. John Snow and Reverend Henry Whitehead, which tracked the London cholera pandemic. 7 But the word “disease” mischaracterizes the problem of environmental lead toxicity. You don’t get lead poisoning because human waste has adulterated your water supply, as it did at the Broad Street pump in London’s Soho district, where more than 600 people died of cholera in 1854. Communicable diseases touch a nerve of human horror; witness recent, justified panics about Ebola. Lead poisoning, conversely, is not passed from person to person and has no human face. Public-health campaigns may tout the dangers of peeling paint in substandard housing — but, in general, people don’t recoil in terror from a windowsill. We amble peaceably onto old front porches.

This has not prevented what one might call the lead lobby from seeking to discredit researchers like Patterson, or blaming vulnerable populations for their own susceptibility to environmental pollution. The key tools for deflection have long been disinformation and racism.
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