Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning/Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution

By Brunk, Quincealea | Nursing History Review, January 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning/Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution


Brunk, Quincealea, Nursing History Review


Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning By Christian Warren (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001) (384 pages; $25 paper)

Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution By Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002) (408 pages; $45 cloth; $19.95 paper)

Both Brush with Death and Deceit ami Denial ate solid reads on a topic that should not be taken lightly-lead poisoning in America. Although the "epidemic" appeared to reach its peak between the 1950s and 1970s, the consequences of lead production and use are still in existence. Warren's approach is matter of fact; Markowitz and Rosner's work has been described as a "detective story" that goes beyond lead poisoning to include vinyl chloride poisoning. Warren provides his evidence and data sources in a narrative fashion, while Markowitz and Rosner link their evidence to theories that are mysterious and complex.

In Brush with Death, Warren explains his basic purpose as that of filling a void in the contemporary historical analysis on the topic. The author quickly reviews the nature of lead poisoning in America, from Benjamin Franklin to the contemporary era. Warren further applies a framework that explores the issue of lead poisoning from occupational, pediatrie, and environmental points of view. After the introduction, Brush with Death proceeds in a chronological order, from the poisoning of children and industrial workers during the 1920s and 1930s to the more recent frustrations associated with lagging resources being allocated for "low-level" lead poisoning. The majority of Warrens study traces the use, and resulting poisoning, occurring from lead-based paint and leaded gasoline, although he acknowledges other sources of the "epidemic." Multiple graphs and figures help to explain the rise and fall of lead poisoning cases, resulting regulation, and morbidity/mortality rates. The text is filled with ample notes for each chapter, although the bibliographic sources selected for each topic are somewhat limited.

The last three decades have seen substantial legislation to control and rectify the effects of lead poisoning on America's children and lead industry workers, as well as members of the general public who are exposed to environmental sources of lead. Although Warren acknowledges a financial burden on government agencies that have been involved in identification, abatement, and regulation of lead poisoning, he indicates that landlords of hazardous buildings have traditionally incurred the largest financial costs.

In the final analysis of his data sources, Warren indicates that one link between lead poisoning has held fast. It is still an unrecognized source of other diseases, in spite of the fact that the symptomatology has changed over time. The course of lead poisoning in America has followed the path of other biotic diseases-progressing from a search for a single cause through the "epidemiologic transition" to implicating lead poisoning in a multitude of medical problems such as certain renal and cardiac problems. In the final chapter of Brush with Death, Warren leads us to the conclusion that we still place our faith in science, but he also cautions that science is no longer a source of mathematical precision. More questions arise as old questions are answered by the scientific approach. He closes his analysis by synthesizing what has worked in reducing the hazards of lead poisoning in America-"cooperation, supervision, and moral suasion" (p. 258). He ultimately charges industry to act responsibly for the greater good, while suggesting that we apply limited restrictions on that industry so that old abuses are not repeated or new ones generated.

In Deceit and Denial, Markowitz and Rosner weave a tale that would garner the attention of movie producers similar to those that cast Julia Roberts, Mel Gibson, and Patrick Stewart in conspiratorial roles on the big screen. …

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