The Legacy of Lead: Pervasive Poisoning, Suspect Science and the Industry Effort to Escape Liability. (Corporate Threats to Environmental Health)

By Johnson, Wendy | Multinational Monitor, April 2003 | Go to article overview

The Legacy of Lead: Pervasive Poisoning, Suspect Science and the Industry Effort to Escape Liability. (Corporate Threats to Environmental Health)


Johnson, Wendy, Multinational Monitor


FIVE BROWN PLASTIC MEDICINE BOTTLES and a weekly pill organizer sit next to a vase of blue silk roses on Angela Goodman's dining room table. The prescriptions all belong to Simantha, her 10-year-old daughter. Although she takes seven pills a day--anti-psychotics, sedatives, medicines for hyperactivity and lithium--they do not entirely calm her violent outbursts and uncontrollable tantrums.

Just yesterday, Angela says, her daughter threw herself against a wall, talked about jumping out the window of their second story apartment, and tried to grab a knife from the kitchen counter.

Simantha's behavioral problems began 6 years ago, just after blood tests showed she was being poisoned by lead dust from old paint in her home.

When Simantha was four, her blood lead was tested as part of a required physical for Head Start pre-school. It was 66 micro-grams per deciliter, over six times the level currently considered acceptable.

"There were no signs," Angela says, "I didn't understand it at first, I thought she was sick and would get better. They don't tell you it's just the beginning." The results were a shock to Angela, especially since Simantha had a normal lead test at age one and appeared to be in good health and developing normally.

Shortly after Simantha's first birthday, the family moved to a small two bedroom house on a quiet side street, a quaint home built in the early 1900s. In this Cleveland, Ohio neighborhood, more than a quarter of the children tested have elevated blood lead levels.

Angela had no idea of the toxin lurking in her home's window wells and on its old gray porch. "I didn't know the paint broke down into dust. People don't understand that the dust on your table can poison your child." When Simantha was two, her mother noticed she was not as talkative as other children. By age four, it was clear that she was having problems learning to count and read.

Today, the medicines are doing their job. Simantha is eager to show a new friend around her room, especially the photographs of her recent horseback riding lessons offered through a special education program for severely learning disabled children. When asked about her experience with doctors and hospitals, she casually mentions that she's "had 10 or 12 admissions."

Simantha Goodman wants to be a teacher. "I'd like to teach little kids to read," she says, "When I learn how to read, I want to teach other kids." Despite years of individualized classes, different medication combinations, and specialized behavioral health care, Simantha is just learning to spell and reads at a kindergarten level. Her sister, just one year older, is an honor's student at a nearby public school.

Simantha's story, unfortunately, is not unique. According to a 1997 EPA analysis, every year 9,000 children in the United States are poisoned by lead paint so severely that they are destined to have IQs below 70. The total number of children poisoned by lead paint since its introduction in the early part of the 1900s is in the tens of millions. Although it was banned in 1978, the durable toxin lingers on the windows, walls and porches of older houses and is embedded in the soil around foundations.

Emerging research suggests the problem may be more troubling than previously realized. Scientists are increasingly concluding that tolerances for blood lead levels should be set lower than previously thought. In other words, lead takes a toll on child development in doses much lower than previously believed.

This is a conclusion that the lead and paint industries do not want scientists and -- even more importantly -- government regulators to reach. Public health advocates charge the industry-friendly Bush administration is stacking government science advisory committees to protect lead businesses -- at the expense of children like Simantha.

Underlying the industry's concerns is not just current regulatory disputes, but lawsuits demanding the industry pay lead poisoning victims and pay for the costs of remedying its past harms. …

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