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.