Why It Took Decades of Blaming Parents Before We Banned Lead Paint

As with soda, demanding that all mechanisms of harm be completely understood before regulations are put in place is frightening.

Melissa Hillier/Flickr

Some died slow deaths. Others went into convulsions. Tens of thousands yet to be born were at risk of permanent damage.

Lead paint initially seemed harmless. The lead pigment that lent color and texture to the oil that formed its base made up as much as 70 percent of a can of paint. As little as a thumbnail-sized chip, though, could send kids into convulsions. But that didn't mean anyone was doing anything. And there was a reason.

Since the 1920s, the lead industry had organized to fight bans, restrictions, even warnings on paint-can labels. It had marketed the deadly product to children and parents, spreading the lie that lead paint was safe. For decades, paint ads appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, National Geographic, and other national magazines and local newspapers. Coloring books were handed out to children. The industry even sent Dutch Boy costumes to children on Halloween, and printed coloring books that showed children how to prepare it.

When public health officials in New York, Baltimore, and Chicago tried to enact regulations in the 1950s that threatened the industry's interests, lobbyists visited legislators and governors to get restrictions lifted. They succeeded. When Baltimore's health department called for the removal of lead from paint, the industry countered by proposing and winning a "voluntary" standard, reducing the lead content in paint. When New York City's health department proposed a warning label saying that the product was poisonous to children, the industry rejected the "poison" label and lobbied successfully for another label that simply advised parents not to use it on "toys, furniture, or interior surfaces that might be chewed by children," and deliberately avoided mentioning that lead paint was poisonous. It hired public relations firms to plan out strategies to forestall threats to the lead market.

The lead industry even sought to place the blame for lead poisoning epidemic on parents and children, claiming that the problem was not with the lead paint but with the "uneducable Negro and Puerto Rican" parents who "failed" to stop children from placing their fingers and toys in their mouths. Children poisoned by lead, the industry claimed, had a disease that led them to suck on "unnatural objects" and thereby get poisoned.

But the industry wouldn't remove all lead from their products. It fought every attempt at regulation. Industry representatives threatened lawsuits against television stations such as CBS that aired popular shows like Highway Patrol in which the product was depicted as dangerous ... All this despite records that show that the industry knew that their product was poisoning children.

Does this playbook sound familiar? To anyone who has been following the furious efforts of the soda industry to counter public health initiatives to limit consumption of their product, it should. As it should to anyone familiar with the history of the tobacco industry's efforts to deny the obvious. As with all such comparisons when it comes to the food industry, an initial caveat is essential: lead and tobacco were known to be lethal.

But in all these cases, industry presents the problem simply as a matter of choice and then blames consumers for not taking simple precautions to protect themselves: smokers who don't quit; parents who don't supervise their children and "let" them eat lead paint; people who simply have no idea of moderation or the importance of physical activity.

In the case of lead paint, after three decades of industry lobbying, propaganda, and denial of danger, local health departments began to assert themselves. In 1949, Maryland's House of Delegates passed a bill banning the use of lead paint on children's toys and furniture -- a law that was repealed under industry pressure the following year. A few years later, the City of Baltimore health department required a warning label be placed on paint cans. Then, in 1959, the New York City Board of Health prohibited the use of paint containing more than one percent lead on interior surfaces.

Other major cities followed suit. Slowly, the number of children facing brain damage began to decline. In 1971, the federal government banned lead-based paints on public housing. Finally, in 1978, nearly two decades after the actions of local departments of health, the federal government banned the use of lead in virtually any paint intended for sale to consumers.

In recent years, New York City's Board of Health has tried to stem the obesity epidemic. New York became the first city in the nation to require that calorie counts accompany food items in fast food restaurants. And, of course, the Board of Health recently tried to limit the size of soda servings.

As with the earlier attempts to regulate lead paint, the affected industries have combined in a furious campaign that has transformed the public's understanding of the city's efforts.

Soda manufacturers, restaurants, movie chain operators, and their allies have tried to convince us that this effort is an attack on our personal freedom: on billboards and signs the industry proclaims that we should not let government "bureaucrats" tell us how much we can drink. Further, the industry has worked its hardest to introduce doubt over the link between obesity, diabetes, and the amount of sugar consumed, arguing that there is significant scientific uncertainty and controversy. Finally, the industry has argued that the soda industry and certain types of stores are being "unfairly" singled out.

Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling accepted much of the industry's argument, arguing that the Board of Health did not have the authority to limit sugary drink container sizes and that the ban was "arbitrary" and "capricious" because not all stores were included in the ban. But the New York City Board of Health is firmly established in the City Charter with the specific role of protecting the City's residents from all health threats -- not just infectious ones.

Demanding that all scientific questions be answered and all aspects of a rule be completely consistent before regulations are put in place is a frightening requirement -- one that, if upheld, would put an end to most public health activities. As with lead poisoning, obesity is an issue that is generating hundreds of studies, and will keep generating them in the coming years. If we have to wait for scientists to reach a consensus about all aspects of the obesity epidemic and other chronic disease threats, we will find our public health departments paralyzed and our health threatened. It is the responsibility of public health departments to protect us from health dangers, regardless of the biological mechanism.

We still have children suffering from lead's effects, but at least kids no longer convulse and die. If the New York City Board of Health had not banned the sale of lead paint in 1959, we would have experienced more generations of children with lead-caused severe brain damage. Whatever the legal niceties are regarding "what is an epidemic," the reality is that we will be sacrificing a generation of children to the consequences of obesity if health agencies don't begin to take action.