It could just as well have been a Hans Christian Anderson tale, except Anderson would never involve himself in so devious a marketing plan.
In the 1930s and into the '40s, the Lead Industries Association (LIA) launched a no-holds-barred marketing campaign called “Cater to the Children” in an attempt to allay increasingly negative publicity spawned by documented medical evidence that lead paint posed a health risk to kids. The campaign sought to win over adult customers through special attention paid to their children, hence the creation of child-friendly ads and a series of coloring books featuring Dutch Boy Paint's tow-headed, overall-wearing mascot as the hero.
“The Dutch Boy Conquers Old Man Gloom,” from 1929, portrays the Little Dutch Boy helping a couple of kids oust elderly Mr. Gloom from their playroom by giving the room and every piece of furniture in it a fresh coat of Dutch Boy paint. “This famous Dutch Boy Lead of mine can make this playroom fairly shine,” proclaims blondie-boy in the wooden shoes (yes, at one point high lead content was touted as a sign of quality). At the top of each page are the words “Give coupon to father or mother,” effectively enlisting a cadre of youthful sales agents. The real conundrum is that around this time, the LIA conducted a survey to show that lead paint wasn't, in fact, being used on children's furniture and therefore posed no threat to kids. The coloring book, however, tells a different story.
The enigmatic little coloring book is part of a collection of advertising material, research studies and internal letters and memos collected by Gerald Markowitz, professor of History at the City University of New York's John Jay College. The documents comprise Markowitz's recently published book Denial: The Deadly Politics of Environmental Pollution, co-authored by David Rosner, professor of sociomedical sciences and history at Columbia University.
Speaking Nov. 8 at the Mission Valley Library, Markowitz detailed early 20th century studies on lead paint as a health risk and the LIA's subsequent push for damage control. In retrospect, it's frightening-“Lead takes part in many games,” one ad urges, portraying the myriad of children's toys that were, back then, manufactured with lead, everything from lead soldiers to dolls' eyes, all of which, no doubt, ended up in an orally fixated child's mouth.
More than a half-century of cover-up has resulted in a lead-poisoned nation, Markowitz said. “The lead industry says it has played no role; they said [they've] been a model corporate citizen.”
The documents tell a different story. In 1946, an LIA memo declared, “... this is an unending battle from which we can only withdraw.” The same year it put out an ad refuting lead's safety, depicting how lead is used to seal a can of evaporated milk. In the ad, with its cozy yellow-orange background, a baby is reaching out for the can of milk. It took the Consumer Product Safety Commission's 1978 ban on lead paint for the LIA to clean up its act-a full 74 years after the first documented cases of lead poisoning in children.
Unfortunately, it's the same cycle that seems to happen with any sort of emerging industrial or environmental hazard-a health risk is identified (in this case, as early as 1904 researchers reported that kids with elevated levels were getting sick) and the people with money to lose throw together an absurdly sophisticated cover-up, all the while leaving a paper trail of internal memos with things like, “Hardly a day goes by that we don't receive a complaint of lead poisoning.”
Markowitz's talk was sponsored by the Environmental Health Coalition, a nonprofit environmental-justice organization that recently launched an aggressive campaign to rid San Diego's older housing stock of lead paint.
In fall of 2000, EHC headed up an inspection of 40 homes built before 1950 in National City and Sherman Heights and found that more than three-quarters of them had at least one lead hazard that posed a health risk to occupants. Eighty-three percent of those homes had young children living in them. Translated citywide, these percentages equate to roughly 7,310 homes in need of lead hazard control and some 3,150 children younger than 6 living in lead-contaminated homes.
Nationwide, studies have found that areas with high poverty levels also contain the largest number of homes with deteriorating lead paint. Childhood lead poisoning has been found to cause decreased IQ, learning disabilities, aggression and hyperactivity. In more serious cases it can lead to coma and death. The saddest fact is that lead poisoning in children living in poverty often goes undetected since those same kids have little access to health care.
Leticia Ayala, who heads EHC's Campaign to Eliminate Childhood Lead Poisoning said that EHC, along with the San Diego Housing Commission and the Metropolitan Area Advisory Committee (MAAC Project), were recently awarded a $1.9 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to put toward cleaning up lead contamination in some of San Diego's poorer neighborhoods: Logan Heights, Memorial, Southcrest, Shelltown, Barrio Logan, Stockton, Grant Hill and Sherman Heights.
In addition to home inspection and clean up, the HUD grant will also fund yearly screening for at-risk kids between the ages of 1 and 6. Previously it was only after children were found to have high levels of lead in their blood that the county took action to clean up homes-and those were the kids whose parents were lucky enough to be able to afford health insurance.
“Everything comes after the fact-after the child has been poisoned,” Ayala said. “We don't agree that that's how resources should be used if we're trying to prevent children from getting lead poisoning.”
While San Diego's taking a step forward, the federal government is threatening to take a huge step back, at least in the eyes of activists. Ayala pointed out that Tommy Thompson, the Secretary of Health and Human Services, recently overruled the Center for Disease Control's nominations for its Advisory Committee on Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention in favor of his own appointees.
Thompson's three appointees are doctors who have served as consultants and expert witnesses for the lead industry. One of those appointees, Dr. William Banner, believes that the CDC's current level of what constitutes lead poisoning-10 micrograms per deciliter of blood-should be raised to seven to 10 times that amount.
Ayala said health care advocates are encouraging people to send letters to Thompson encouraging him to reconsider his appointments. “For him to appoint people tied to the lead industry just doesn't make sense,” she said.