How did we get here?
By Consumers Union on Tuesday, October 23rd, 2007
Sadly, the lead industry may have written the first playbook on fighting independent science with industry funded science, and advocates with advertising. Although ancient civilizations recognized the toxicity of lead, and modern nations began to ban lead paint early in the 20th century, the market for lead products actually grew in the first half of this century. The lead industry marketed an anti-knock additive for gasoline—a terrible development for everyone needing to breathe in the 1950s and 1960s—and inaugurated a national campaign to promote lead house paint and advertise the safety of lead products to children.
First, the lead product companies moved to cast doubt on the science surrounding lead poisoning. Both the leaded gas and paint companies hired their own researchers, and challenged the findings of independent scientists on the nature of the harms of lead and lead products.
A few years ago the Journal of Public Health published a seminal article, “Cater to the Children,” now available here on the web, about the scientific and public relations campaign run by the lead industry in the first half of the last century. In addition to running advertising specifically designed to appeal to kids and reassure parents about the use of lead paint indoors, the campaign promoted highly toxic white lead paint in particular to offset the advocacy of consumer organizations.
In addition to specific companies’ ads, in 1938 the lead industry as a whole, through the LIA [Lead Industry Association], began its White Lead Promotion Campaign, the single largest activity undertaken by the LIA up until that date. The purpose of the campaign was to increase interest in white lead in paint because the LIA recognized that “white lead is also constantly subject to attack from the health standpoint.” The LIA thought that there was a “morale problem” and that advertising would help “to offset the stigma attached to lead because of attacks made upon it by consumer organizations.”
The campaign was a success. Despite a tide of evidence that lead was poisonous, including a 1943 Time Magazine story on lead poisoning among children, mounting newspaper reports of individual cases of lead poisoning, and 1956 stories in Parade Magazine and on CBS news, the use of lead paint grew. Say researchers at Cincinnati Childrens Hospital:
Despite the mounting evidence and widespread acknowledgement throughout the medical community that lead paint was hazardous to the health of consumers, the lead paint industry in the United States did not remove lead from its paint or warn consumers of the dangers until very late. In 1970, federal legislation was enacted that prohibited the use of lead paint in federally financed and subsidized housing. The Consumer Products Safety Commission also passed a ban on the use of all lead paint after February 1978.
But then, indeed, the U.S. did ban lead paint and ultimately removed lead from gasoline. So why decades later has it returned as children’s jewelry and lead painted toys? Well, unfortunately, it may have been “returned to sender.” as Ted Smith, founder of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition noted recently in the Wall Street Journal.
High levels of toxic lead turning up in cheap jewelry from China are prompting recalls in the U.S. But some of the lead used by these Chinese manufacturers comes from an unconventional source: computers and other electronic goods discarded in Western countries and dumped in China.
Liu Mouye, owner of the Yiwu Yiming Alloy Factory here, says the lead alloy she sells to jewelry makers around Yiwu — an important hub for low-priced Chinese exports — is made in part from so-called e-waste that arrives by ship in southern China from the U.S. and other developed countries.
China is a leading recycler of U.S. computer, TV, cell phone and other technology waste – and lead is what Chinese recyclers leach out of these appliances for resale as an alloy used in cheap jewelry. Researchers at Ashland University in Ohio tested children’s lead jewelry made in China and found levels of other metals that suggest the lead originally came from the solder used in circuit boards.
If you use a computer, there is something you can do to make sure toxic metals from your electronic waste are safely recycled and don’t end up in the mouth of a child – check out our tips at Greener Choices.