And lead is that – soft, malleable, wonderfully conformable, metal of a hundred uses. Its presence – and indeed the very language of lead – infuses our culture today. The term plumbing dates back to the use of lead pipes by the Romans. The person who installs and repairs those pipes is called a plumber. A plumb bob refers to a lead weight, a plumb line is pulled straight by such a weight.
Then there’s the word “plumbism” which doesn’t get much use these days. But that happens to be my topic here – plumbism is the old-fashioned term for lead poisoning, which plagued the Roman empire and continues to plague us today. Some scholars have argued that the Roman’s profligate use of lead (pipes, bottles, and wine cups, leaded cosmetics and paint) helped put it an end to that empire. An EPA paper on the subject points out that lead’s neurotoxic contribution is considered a key part of “the conspicuous pattern of mental incompetence that came to be synonymous with the Roman elite.”
Interestingly, Japanese scholars have made a similar case for lead poisoning as a factor in the end of the Edo period in 1867, the decline of the once-powerful shogunate ruling class. A recent study by Tamiji Nakashima, an anatomist at the University of Occupational and Environmental Health in Kitakyushu, and his colleagues analyzed the bones of some 70 samurai men, their wives and children from that period. They had wondered if heavy use of lead-based white face paint had been a health factor and their investigation showed them precisely right; they found evidence of lead levels more than 120 times background level as well as bands of lead deposits in the bones.
Of course, they didn’t know what we’ve learned in the intervening years. “No safe blood lead level has been identified,” according to a current U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) backgrounder on exposure risks.
The wonderfully useful metal lead is also a wonderfully broad spectrum poison - it interferes with enzyme production, especially enzymes needed by red blood cells, and is known to cause lethal anemias. It deposits itself into bones and stays there – the half-life of lead in human bones is up to 30 years. Muscle weakness, numbness and tingling, nausea, severe stomach pain, depression, fatigue, sleeplessness, loss of libido – all are symptoms of lead poisoning and all speak to its ability to impact every part of the body.
It is also a notorious neurotoxin. We understand, as the Romans did not, that this happens in part because lead can destroy production of essential neurotransmitters (such as glutamate which plays a key role in learning by enhancing plasticity). In this country, we’ve been cataloging lead’s ability to do harm for well over a hundred years – U.S. scientists were diagnosing lead poisoning as early as 1887 - sometimes despite the attempts of industry to deny that work. Last summer, I wrote about some of the early 20th century science, and the resulting controversy, in a post on the troubled history of leaded gasoline.
I mentioned all these moments from history here because they add up to one clear point: we’ve known that lead was dangerous for a very long time. Eventually, in fact, the evidence was so overwhelming that the federal government banned it from paint in 1978 and started phasing it out of gasoline shortly later (although that process didn’t end in this country until the early 1990s.)
Should that have happened sooner. Yes. Did those bans remove all industrial lead contamination from the environment? No. By some estimates, U.S. use of leaded gasoline sent some 7 million tons of lead into the atmosphere, which obviously precipitated right back down to us. And programs to removed leaded paint from old buildings have been woefully underfunded, especially in the country’s poorest neighborhoods where lead-poisoning of children continues to be reported at dismaying levels.
So why, with all this painfully learned awareness in our hands, why in the name of lead-free sanity would our federal government decide to gut the meager program dedicated to helping protect those very family. Yes, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Healthy Homes and Lead Poisoning Prevention Program has been slashed from $29 million to $2 million for the next fiscal year.
“There’s a serious irony here,” The New York Times noted, this week, pointing out that new public health guidelines recommend reducing childhood lead exposure to even lower levels than now exist. There’s also the fact that removal of lead paint has dragged on for so long that some tenants are turning to civil lawsuits to force the issue. And the fact that a pilot study in St. Louis found that lead paint removal did, indeed, offer some real protection to families in affected neighborhoods.
In other words, in the scheme of our federal budget, this is a very small amount with a very large proven benefit. So why would our government back away from supporting it. “Poisoned Poor Kids?” wrote a columnist for the Colorado Springs Independent. “Congress Doesn’t Care.” At the OpEdNews.com, Peter Montague was even more pointed in a piece titled, “Poisoning Urban Children: White Privilege and Toxic Lead.”
In fact, there’s not a single good public health reason to support this cut – and plenty of potential very bad results to follow. I’m writing here to add my own voice to those calling for these funds to be restored. Let hese children and families least receive a slim promise that we are here to protect their well-being and that we actually do care about their futures. They deserve more than that but I’m not optimistic that they’ll get it.
But the mistakes of our poisonous past should remind us here that this is a very wrong direction. Or perhaps we should just call it plumb crazy.