In Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children, Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner examine the health crisis, which disproportionately affects low-income and minority families living in older, dilapidated housing.
In June, the Department of Housing and Urban Development awarded $46.5 million to 15 local and state governments to reduce the number of lead-poisoned children and protect families by targeting health hazards in more than 3,100 low-income homes with significant lead and/or other home hazards.
It was also reported earlier this year that federal officials are investigating environmental health and safety conditions, including cases of elevated levels of lead in the blood among New York City’s public housing occupants.
Markowitz, also a distinguished professor of history at John J. College and Graduate Center at the City of New York, recently discussed the issue with AHF contributor Helena Okolicsanyi.
Below is an edited portion of their conversation:
How did lead paint begin to be used in America?
Lead paint came to be used very extensively with the expansion of U.S. cities in the early 20th century. You had a really tremendous housing boom in the 1920s, and this led to a [significant] use of a wide variety of building materials. Combine that with the fact that in the 19th century you had much more use of things like wallpaper, and then, in the 20th century, much greater use of paint in general, because it was seen as modern and easier to clean. And lead and zinc pigments were [key paint ingredients] in the early 20th century.
Traditionally, zinc was much less toxic than lead. And, in fact, zinc pigment manufacturers in the early 20th century sometimes put out ads that theirs was the nonpoisonous paint.
Why did people start using lead in paint?
In economics, there’s a term called vertical integration of companies. In the case of paint, that meant that the company taking the lead out of the mine owned the smelters that refined the lead, which in turn owned the companies that produced the lead pigment and the [resulting] paint. So these companies had a real incentive to use the ore from the mines they owned anyway. And that was especially true of National Lead Co., which was producing lead pigments throughout the first half of the 20th century.
Why has lead paint been predominant in low-income and minority communities?
After World War II, when people moved out of the cities and moved into what we now consider suburbs, a lot of the housing that middle- and upper-class families left was owned by absentee landlords, and you had a very large number of people who were moving into those houses from the South, especially African-Americans. A new wave of people were coming in, and, frequently, it was absentee landlords that owned these houses and didn’t keep them up. So the paint that was on the walls started to deteriorate, and the residents would be exposed to lead in paint much more often than middle-class families were, because the [latter group’s] houses tended to be kept up better.
The city of Baltimore plays an important role in your book. Why is it unique in how it’s tried to combat lead paint?
Baltimore is a wonderful case because it’s an example of where a health commissioner, Huntington Williams, was looking for lead poisoning and was able to uncover it really a couple of decades before most other cities started looking for lead poisoning. Because he looked at it, he found quite a bit of it. In some ways, Baltimore is an example of what a health commissioner who’s alert to the problem is able to accomplish by really focusing the health department’s concerns.
What’s happened in Baltimore, unfortunately, has not been followed up, and it seems to me that the people who are in poor housing are being subjected to really terrible, terrible conditions.
Has the increased focus on the contaminated water in Flint, Mich., made you at all optimistic that the lead paint crisis will draw similar attention?
I think Flint has had a good effect on focusing national attention on lead poisoning as a critical issue. I’m not optimistic that we’re going to have the kind of commitment to do something about this issue, [however]. I’m somewhat more optimistic about lead in water than I am about lead in paint, in part because I think lead in water scares more people.
People who send their kids to school are uncertain whether their kids are going to be safe. But because lead paint is seen primarily as an issue of poverty, and seen primarily as an issue for children of color, it generates less urgency among people. And I think that’s been the problem historically, and I’m not optimistic that will change even with the current attention on lead.
States have been directed to tackle the issues of lead in water and paint, but what more can the federal government do?
The federal government is appropriating the money to deal with these issues, so the states are under tremendous pressure from [their citizens to do so].
In New Jersey and other states, the [focus is on] testing water in schools and other places, just to determine where the danger spots are. It’s something we don’t know [enough about], and it’s a similar situation with lead paint, that frequently we use children, in essence, as guinea pigs. We find out where children are being lead-poisoned and then we treat the homes rather than going in and knowing which homes are dangerous and then removing the children.
The lack of affordable housing for poor people makes the situation even worse, because even if a family finds out that lead is a problem in their home, where can they go? What are the options for them? There isn’t low-income housing they can go to.
Do you hold out hope the lead industry will eventually be held accountable?
I would say two things: One, there is the hope that what has happened in Flint will galvanize people to demand that lead be taken out of children’s environments. And that it will only be through people demanding that something be done, and that governments will act to protect children from lead in their homes or in their drinking water.
But the second thing: In 2013, there was a lawsuit in which 10 cities and counties in California won a judgment against three lead-paint pigment manufacturers to pay $1.1 billion to take lead paint off the walls, windows, and doors of homes in those 10 cities and counties. I think [other] cities and states that claim they don’t have money should follow suit. I think the companies that put lead in paint that was [used] all over the country and that made tremendous profits from doing so should play some role in helping solve the problem.