One of the longest-running public health epidemics in American history involves a handful of baby teeth, a creepy cartoon character and The Young Lords. This is a story about a fight for accountability.
Hosted by Kai Wright. Reported by Christopher Werth.
Support for WNYC reporting on lead is provided by the New York State Health Foundation, improving the health of all New Yorkers, especially the most vulnerable. Learn more at www.nyshealth.org. Additional support for WNYC’s health coverage is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Jane and Gerald Katcher and the Katcher Family Foundation, and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
The Lead Industry Memos
In this, our first episode, we tell the story of how the lead industry fooled the public into thinking its products were safe.
Thankfully, as you'll hear, a number of activists, researchers and pediatricians developed the scientific evidence needed to prove the lead industry wrong. Our interaction and graphic designer, Clarisa Diaz, made this fantastic flowchart that shows how those battles were won:
Our reporting found that the lead industry characterized lead poisoning as a problem that only affected people of color, and therefore, was one it couldn’t do much to solve.
For example, in a letter dated December 21, 1949, Manfred Bowditch from the Lead Industries Association wrote to Joseph C. Aub, a doctor whose research the industry was funding.
Bowditch was unhappy about another physician named Randolph Byers, who was the first to prove children who survived extreme cases of lead poisoning were left with severe brain damage.
Then, as now, Baltimore had a large black population and was among the cities with high levels of lead exposure.
It was a theme Bowditch would expand upon in the following decade. In another letter dated July 11, 1956. he wrote to Felix Wormser, a former director of the Lead Industries Association who was then serving as Assistant Secretary of Mineral Resources under President Eisenhower.
Both men were concerned about an article that appeared in Parade magazine that year on childhood lead poisoning. Bowditch makes his case:
A year later, Bowditch wrote to Dr. Robert Kehoe at the Ethyl Corporation, a company created by General Motors that pioneered the use of lead in gasoline.
Far from accepting any blame on the part of the industry, Bowditch lays out what he believes are the real culprits:
To hear the full episode, click "Listen" above.