Plumb crazy

The chemical symbol for lead is Pb, from the Latin word “plumbum” which refers to a malleable metal.

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, 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.


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15 Responses to Plumb crazy

  1. There’s not yet a lot of direct evidence of lead poisoning in ancient Rome. The bioarchaeology study I took part in, and which I talk about in this article (, was done on teeth (indicating childhood lead exposure). Many of these people made it to a relatively old age. Not to say it was a nice life (since bones can’t tell us everything about their quality of life), but there’s not nearly enough evidence to come to any sort of conclusion about lead poisoning in ancient Rome. It’s an oft-repeated hypothesis that no one but us have set out to test…

    That said, lead is incredibly, incredibly bad. Slashing funding from a lead poisoning prevention program is stupid and will hurt very many people, mostly children. Ugh.

  2. John Lowe says:

    In lighter moments, I sometimes speculate about whether or not the conspicuous pattern of mental incompetence that seems to be synonymous with our current elites is related to the neurobehavioral and cognitive effects associated with exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

    Thanks for the link to ACCLPP report, by the way.

  3. Jerome B says:

    This is the sort of thing that will happen when you’re $15 trillion in debt.

  4. Nate says:

    Yet again another dubious environmental story. True lead is a problem and it is certainly toxic, it is not like other toxins in that it is relatively stable unless acted upon chemicals or heat.

    In the Peter Montague piece, one immediately has to wonder about the veracity of the piece. While it covers a considerable amount of history, it is not well organized and provides a confusing array of facts.

    Another thing to wonder about is the timing of the release of ACCLPP report. Almost no manufacturer today would introduce lead into any product that human or animal would have direct contact with the element. In fact, it has been that way for over 20 years.

    So a new report raises the profile of a stable element, toxic though it may be, all but insinuating it is as dangerous as dioxins (like the defoliant Agent Orange) or DDT. Lead is nothing like abestos, mercury (used in “green” low energy lights) or a myriad of other toxins mostly because of its stability.

    Lead’s danger to people generally comes from ingestion (acids in stomach will dissolve lead) or inhalation (dust). Even in places where lead has been weathering in the open centuries are hardly dead zones.

    Pioneers ate a lot of food killed by gunfire. Undoubtedly they consumed trace amounts of lead yet showed no ill effects from the substance.

    But rather that point out the major errors Montague’s and Ms. Blum’s article one should wonder why federal agencies are refocusing attention on this well understood element and toxin. It could be as simple as an agency trying to justify itself fearing if it does not publish something it may fall under the budget axe in the future. There may be other reasons the government wants such a report published.

  5. Deborah Blum says:

    In fact, as I pointed out, there’s nothing new about the toxicity of lead. We continue to add to our knowledge but the basic fact – this is a dangerous neurotoxin – has been known for well over a century. What’s different is that for about 30 years, the federal government has been fairly dedicated to alleviating the risk. Now that’s being reduced and at exactly the time that even countries with notorious environmental problems, such as China, are stepping up their efforts to deal with it. You may feel this is a good response and I, obviously, disagree with that.

  6. Deborah Blum says:

    Yes, I think you’ve called that one exactly right.

  7. Deborah Blum says:

    I like the way you think:)

  8. Lee says:

    I think the real question may be the level of risk that the government considers acceptable.

  9. Julie says:

    Another issue is being able to properly track lead as an ingredient in different products. We used to laugh at the California regulation about a product containing too much lead because we knew that the tracking system used to determine which products were applicable was such a mess that the accuracy was a joke.
    If it appears people are tracking lead content it might be wise to actually investigate whether or not they actually are tracking it or just appearing to track it. They save $$ that way. The appearance of compliance, is, in their opinion, the same as compliance itself.
    And that, is truly a waste of money and a contributing element to our 15 trillion debt. And- it does nothing to protect us against lead.

  10. Nate says:

    Yes, and I also see you agree that lead is mostly stable element and though poisonous needs to be in form that makes it mobile.

    Lead is nothing like mercury or dioxins which in their normal states are hugely more of toxic threat. The adhesives, catalysts, and reactants used to manufacture everything from iPhones to wind turbines need a lot more attention than lead. One has to wonder why the government is expending great effort on fishing weights and bullets, when other toxins are a far greater threat.

    I also believe if the problem exists in foreign country, it is not the duty of this country to expend our citizens money trying to regulate them. They are sovereign governments.

    I do support our country giving such nations advice and technical assistance to aid them in avoiding problems. We do not want them to repeat our hard learned errors.

    It also is no sin using the court of public opinion to apply pressure. However, if you do this a great deal of honesty is required and above all, patience.

    Too often NGOs sound alarm when none is required or warranted. They may even sound sound alarm when scientific support is weak. That leads to distrust.

    BTW, I have no problem with your disagreement. Still lead domestically, and that is all we have the right to control, is in check and to be honest, the government overreached. It was not a lot of overreach, but it was some. The reason why people have backed off is the science just does not support that level of control.

  11. Nate says:

    Risk is such an interesting concept. How much risk is considered acceptable? Most of the time I think acceptable risk is determined by how much time it is receiving on the cable shows or whether their is a cute slogan on a baseball cap.

    We have a much bigger poison in our society and, it should not be regulated. It causes more damage, wrecks economic systems, damages lives.

    The culprit: morality.

    To often today the ends justify the means. If you cannot win in the court of competing ideas, litigants stoop to character assination, intimidation and demoralization.

    The sad thing is, it works, that is why people use it.

    You don’t regulate it because in the long run, it is better to hear it than suppress it. Such as it is with risk.

    Every activity has a risk associated with it. You must decide just how much risk is acceptable. How to review risk as knowledge and technology improve. To be able to change those limits either way as these advances improve.

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