My husband and I have been working on writing this article for a few weeks now. We have done our best to present this information in a way that gives the reader historical context and demonstrates these issues as endemic in for-profit-industry over the past century and beyond. The opinions we have expressed here are not only ours but are those of top historians (and others) who have been researching this issue for decades. If you have questions about anything you read here and would like additional information or links to other writings and research on the subject, please let us know. I suggest starting with reading the writings of world renown historians (and professors) David Rosner and Jerry Markowitz.
Background & History
For more than a century, most Americans have been intentionally misled — through a false narrative carefully crafted and disseminated by the Lead industry via an incredibly successful “marketing” campaign (employing propaganda, political influence, and skullduggery) — to believe specific “facts” (myths) about childhood Lead-poisoning.
This effort has been undertaken to intentionally obscure the true size, scope, and impact of Lead-Poisoning — the single largest and most costly long-term public health crisis in this country — and to deflect blame and accountability for the incalculable ongoing harm done to successive generations of Americans from the Lead-based paint products (and, to a lesser degree, other Leaded products) these companies knowingly manufactured and promoted for decades even after their own scientists determined these products to be incredibly dangerous (harming employees of the companies but also causing permanent brain damage, seizures, and death to children exposed to even small amounts of the invisible toxic micro-dust continually coming off of surfaces in homes painted with Lead paint).
As you can see from the image below, the industry actually
promoted the dusting of these products as a benefit:
At the core of this false narrative are two key ideas
For most of the last four decades (since the “1978 ban on Lead paint”) if you randomly asked virtually any U.S. citizen what they knew about Lead-poisoning, you’d get an answer that contained various elements of this Lead industry-authored (or influenced) narrative. The two key misconceptions are as follows:
- Lead-poisoning is mostly* a thing of the past, ‘solved’ with the 1978 ban on Lead-based paint.
- Lead-poisoning “only” (primarily?) happens to low-income Black families, living in in poorly-maintained housing (“slums”).
*”mostly,” with the public consciousness exception being the situation in Flint.
Neither of these “facts” are true; yet both are essential pillars of the strategic false narrative developed by Lead industry** marketing executives. This narrative was originally crafted in order to ensure that consumers (in the U.S. and abroad) would falsely believe that culturally-specific behavior (including alleged poor hygiene and poor home cleaning habits) of (“Negro” and “Puerto Rican”) “ineducable parents [the actual language used in Lead industry internal memos — see images below!]” was the cause of the Lead-poisoning of children.
As a result of these marketing initiatives (which date back to the early 1900s) historically, white families (today and in the past) have been led to believe that Lead-poisoning was not “their” problem or concern (ostensibly because they were educated and knew how to keep their homes clean).
The image below is a 1957 memo reiterating the popular thinking (based on the Lead-industry narrative that this was “essentially a problem of slum dwellings and relatively ignorant parents”).
Continue reading below the images.
The Lead industry considered Lead poisoning an “adverse publicity” problem and set their marketing teams to the task of dealing with it:
**Who is the Lead industry? Historically the Lead industry was made up of a handful of vertically-integrated companies — companies who mined, refined, and manufactured Lead pigment, and then turned that into Lead paint and other Leaded products. This included The National Lead Company (later the branding for their paint products was strategically changed to “Dutch Boy”); Sherwin Williams (their paint is still on our national monuments today — like the White House, and the “Hollywood” sign); Anaconda, Glidden, and a few other paint and product manufacturers. Even today (in 2020), the Lead industry (including many of these same original corporate dynasties) still exists and is thriving — reporting record profits year-over-year. (Read more at this link.)
As professors and historians David Rosner and Jerry Markowitz discuss, in their books on the subject, Lead-poisoning has been a racially-charged issue since the period of the American Industrial Revolution. In their research, they were able to obtain several of the original records of internal conversations and actual meeting minutes (including the documents in the images above) in which the Lead industry’s propaganda campaign architects discussed their concerns about “adverse publicity” caused by publicly shared incidents of children being poisoned by their products, and the need to combat this bad press by shifting public opinion based on a set of what some would now call “alternate facts” — made up to suit their own goals.
Racist Origins &
the Truth of the Matter
Lead-poisoning prevention’s racist origins
The top “layer of the onion”:
“What everyone knows…”
Who is actually “at risk” of being Lead poisoned?
Lead-poisoning is not caused by (nor dependent on) race, heritage, level of education, socio-economic status, or poor housekeeping. Lead-poisoning is primarily caused by Lead paint micro-dust – found in homes that were built and painted before 1978. Other sources of exposure include: Lead-contaminated soil, water, air, food, consumer products, and industrial or occupational exposure to Lead.
ANY man, woman, or child (any human, or any animal for that matter — livestock, wild, or pet!) who comes into contact with this incredibly potent neurotoxicant is potentially at risk. Lead does not discriminate; it is an “equal-opportunity poison.”
The second “layer of the onion”…
Is that the first layer was an intentionally created myth — created so the Lead industry would not be held responsible for the financial repercussions of the human damage caused by their products:
- As long as this is perceived as being a predominantly Black issue, funding to solve it would not be allocated.
- As long as this is perceived to be a predominantly Black issue, corporations who created the problem would not be held accountable for their actions.
- The societal lack of value on Black lives historically, combined with the false narrative that this is restricted to being a “low-income, Black problem,” is the reason the issue of childhood Lead poisoning persists today.
Failings of the Public Health System
Continue reading below the image.
The public agency role in holding systemic racism in place when it comes to Lead poisoning prevention initiatives:
The third “layer of the onion”…
Public agencies cementing the Lead industry narrative in the public consciousness by parroting Lead-industry created myths in their programs and materials.
Continue reading below the image.
Continue reading below the image.
With 90% (+) of Lead poisoning prevention brochures depicting children of color, along with the focus of those brochures being that mothers need to clean their homes better, the public agencies that have created these brochures are playing right in the the blame-deflection-game crafted by the Lead industry.
In this way, the Lead industry has deflected blame for Lead poisoning and put the responsibility on the shoulders of mothers.
The fourth “layer of the onion”…
Societal blaming of mothers (& specifically Black mothers)
This myth, the public perception crafted by the Lead industry at the turn of the twentieth century — that childhood Lead-poisoning is a “low-income Black” problem is discussed extensively in my film.
- Starting as early as the early 1900s, the Lead industry capitalized on the deep racist undercurrents in our country.
- They harnessed systemic racism as a tool to deflect blame for their dangerous products.
- Their marketing campaigns also claimed their products were “white” and “pure” (and therefore by association “safe”) and so the harm could not be the fault of the product.
- They quite literally used racism to benefit and enrich themselves.
Industry specifically harnessed systemic racism to perpetuate the idea that “poor, ignorant Black women don’t clean their house well enough,” so “it’s only their children who are poisoned.”
Because Lead poisoning was therefore known to be a low-income Black problem, white women didn’t need to worry about Lead-poisoning (it was — by association then — asserted that white mothers have “superior” awareness/ education and know how to clean their homes properly). Since white families were thought to not be impacted, our predominantly white political base never allocated sufficient funding to solve the problem.
Through this narrative (and injecting elements of this narrative into our culture with an aggressive marketing campaign) the Lead industry protected themselves from the financial liability for the health impacts caused by their products (“health impacts” that included permanent brain damage, seizures, and death).
Shaming and blaming mothers for poisoning their children
- They blame themselves for not cleaning enough.
- They blame themselves for not noticing hazards.
- They blame themselves for moving into an unsafe home.
Yet none of this is their fault — their child’s Lead poisoning is 100% the fault of the Lead industry knowingly selling toxic products for decades upon decades and insisting they were safe.
Our public health programs should be helping families with this issue, but they are not. Why is this? Who is the public health system designed to benefit?
- Our “leaders” are suggesting we stop testing. This has also been the case with Lead poisoning. Testing will show the true scope of the problem. Ceasing testing (because so many children are “testing low” now) will result in less pressure (in theory — as presented by rich white politicians) to allocate the necessary large-scale initiatives — and commensurate funding — to solve it permanently.
- Elderly, low-income, and communities of color are being disproportionately impacted — primarily because they are prevented from having access to financial resources to address basic health, housing and safety concerns to keep them safe and healthy.
- A lack of political will is generating a situation in which funding is not being appropriately allocated to resolve the problem quickly because the perception is that the people being impacted are “them” (not us) — with divisions along racial, socio-economic (and in the case of Covid-19, age) lines.
Those are just a few of the highlights of parallels between the epidemic of childhood Lead poisoning in this country and the COVID-19 pandemic. What these parallels demonstrate is that, fundamentally, public health is not a concern of our government and that public health is seen as a racially-divided issue.
Public health initiatives should benefit everyone
In most other “developed” countries (Finland, Norway, Denmark, England, etc.) public health resources are for all people. Public health is seen as a national priority. In America today (and historically), public health has been regarded as a (controversial) “last resort” intended only to (minimally) support low-income families and families of color — and again, it is our politicians using systemic racism to influence politics and “conserve” (redirect) tax revenue and other public resources that should be available to everyone.
Since these issues are not proportionately impacting our politicians directly (as most of them are old white men in the 1% and can afford Lead-free housing, for example), appropriate funding is simply not being allocated.
The Influence of Old White Men
How do we get past this — and protect all the children?
a rich white male politician whose child or grandchild has been poisoned
Case Study — Section #4.a. — Jim
A textbook example of the above “truth” is the case of the drowning of Graeme Baker — and the consequent legislation (fairly rapidly enacted) to prevent a tragedy like that from happening again.
*Using numbers published by the CDC, it can be clearly demonstrated that one in three American children (people under the age of 18) in the United States today has had a blood Lead level of 2.5 or higher in their lifetime. This is approximately 22,000,000 children. Federal agencies agree there is no safe level of lead exposure for a child. The scientific consensus is clear that even blood lead levels as low as 1.0 or 2.0 can cause irreparable harm in the form of neurological damage and physiological implications including reproductive disorders, increased risk of heart disease, and more. Read more here.
Case study — Section #4.b. — Jason
A.J.’s Law — Lead-Safe Schools
Case study — Section #4.c. — George (Sr.)
In 1990 it took the poisoning of a DOG (the dog of an older white male politician) to generate action.
Case study — Section #4.d. — Bernie
What about Bernie Sanders?
PLEASE do take 92 minutes to watch the preview screener of my film on YouTube. Make time — I promise you that you will not regret the time spent. It is a REAL movie movie. It was made for theatrical release and has been very well received by test audiences. While it looks done to most audiences, it was never completed (due to the lack of finishing funds precipitated by my need to divert all my available funds and energy to defend my advocacy against false accusations that attempted to shut it down). The film has MUSIC DONATED BY THE WHO! It has music DONATED BY TOM WAITS! It has footage from my interview with NOAM CHOMSKY and footage from my presentation with BERNIE SANDERS in FLINT! It has interviews with families of Lead-poisoned kids across the country. It has interviews with experts, scientists, and policy makers across the country, too. Thank you. Link: https://youtu.be/eRKlaC2EjL0
If you appreciate my advocacy work, please consider making a contribution so Lead Safe Mama, LLC can continue doing what we do. We still have over $50,000 in unpaid legal bills from defending this work against false charges over the past 4+ years, and my civil rights case (in Federal court, against the State of Oregon) is not likely to be resolved for another year or more. Here’s a link to contribute in support of this work. Here’s a link with the full original filing of my civil rights case.
For those new to this website:
Tamara Rubin is a multiple-federal-award-winning independent advocate for childhood Lead poisoning prevention and consumer goods safety and a documentary filmmaker. She is also a mother of Lead-poisoned children (two of her sons were acutely Lead-poisoned in 2005). Since 2009, Tamara has been using XRF technology (a scientific method used by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission) to test consumer goods for toxicants (specifically heavy metals — including Lead, Cadmium, Mercury, Antimony, and Arsenic). All test results reported on this website are science-based, accurate, and replicable. Items are tested multiple times to confirm the test results for each component tested. Tamara’s work was featured in Consumer Reports Magazine in February of 2023 (March 2023 print edition).