Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
November 3, 1991
Their task is a heavy one: Recasting the image of lead
Report on a tarnished element

NEW YORK - Lead doesn't have the sterling image of other metals.

Hit records don't go lead (although the vinyl in every album contains some lead). Nobody compliments a loyal friend for being as good as lead. And optimists don't reassure you that every cloud has a lead lining.

In fact, leaden skies are considered ominous. Gangsters threaten to pump their victims full of lead (74 tons of lead went into ammunition last year). Bad ideas go over like lead balloons. And good news never hit anybody like a ton of lead.

Consider, then, the task confronting Jerome F. Smith, executive director of the Lead Industries Association, the trade group that promotes lead.

Smith's job is to make lead look good.

It's a tough sell. For starters, he has to overcome a body of dreadful evidence going back a millennium or two.

Lead sweeteners in wine are suspected of causing the strange behavior of Romans, which hastened the decline of their ancient civilization. In 1848, lead poisoning from badly canned food killed an expedition of 129 men in the Canadian Arctic. Even Ben Franklin, who handled lead type in his printing business, recognized in colonial times that the stuff was toxic.

Lately, the news about lead has seemed even worse.

Recently, the federal Centers for Disease Control drastically lowered the limit at which children are considered at risk for lead poisoning.

The action increased the number of children at risk from several hundred thousand to more than four million.

The government concluded that even low levels of lead in children produced long-lasting effects, including delays in development, reduced IQ scores and impaired hearing.

At the Lead Industries Association - which in previous decades has lost battles against those who want to remove lead from gasoline, paint, plumbing and food containers - the federal government's ruling was anticipated with the weariness of a condemned man who maintains his innocence.

"The pendulum has swung way out here against us," Smith said, holding his hand out to the side. "Sooner or later, it'll have to come back to center."

Smith said the government had overemphasized the risk of low-level doses of lead and, in turn, detracted attention from the greater problem of children who have more severe lead poisoning.

"The fact is that we agree and have for some time that all children should be universally tested," said Smith, a chemist who has worked for the lead association for 31 years.

"We have no problem with that."

Smith and Jeffrey T. Miller, the association's director of environmental health and government affairs, have their hands full these days defending lead's name.

"The fear that I have is that we create a hysteria about lead, much the same as Alar a few years back," Miller said recently in the association's Manhattan offices, where visitors are greeted in the reception area by two large chunks of lead ore mounted on wooden pedestals.

But concerns about lead have already gone much further than the scare about Alar, a chemical used on apples.

Congress is considering nearly a dozen anti-lead bills that would tax lead at twice its value, require government approval for all new uses of lead, and require labels for products containing even tiny portions of the metal - most of which, the association contends, pose no danger at all to consumers. Some proposals would ban certain uses of lead.

Meanwhile, the association and paint manufacturers stand accused in lawsuits in Philadelphia, New York and other cities of conspiring to suppress knowledge about the toxic effects of lead for 50 years. The suits demand that the lead industry pay for the removal of lead paint, potentially from millions of units of public and private housing.

This year, the association has budgeted $1.4 million for promotional and lobbying work to support the "life and death struggle to maintain the viability of lead," according to Leadlines, the association's newsletter. The association is composed of about 50 manufacturers and users of lead.

The group's aim is to play down the dangers of a material that was once used to make millions of lead toys, and is still used by hobbyists who make fishing sinkers or work with stained glass.

"Look, this stuff is rather benign if you don't eat it or put it in the hands of children," said Smith.

Lead's advocates point to studies showing that the level of lead in children's blood today is about a third of the amount that was there in the 1930s.

So why aren't today's youths smarter than they were in the past? Smith asks. "SAT test scores and all the rest of it have dropped," he said.

But at the same time, the association does not deny that lead is toxic, and it spends a portion of energy encouraging its member companies to deal with lead responsibly.

"I think we've always been cognizant of the fact that it's hazardous, and we've done things to help educate people on those hazards," said Miller, who pulled out a stack of pamphlets the association has printed for workers and hobbyists who work with lead.

Much of Miller's effort is to polish lead's tarnished image in the news media, which means that he and the association's public relations firm churn out a steady stream of news releases.

Lately, the association has been trying to turn around lead's reputation as an environmental threat by pointing out that lead protects humans from other environmental dangers. For instance, lead vests protect dental patients from X-rays, and lead shields on television tubes help contain radiation.

And the association is touting electric cars, which could improve the nation's air-pollution problem - while at the same time boosting the sale of lead because each car contains an 800-pound lead-acid battery. Batteries account for 80 percent of the 1.2 million tons of lead used last year in the United States.

But sometimes it seems like a public relations nightmare. The same month this summer that Newsweek called lead the number-one environmental threat to children, another national magazine ran a cover story: "Lead and the Good Life."

Such is lead's luck that the upbeat story appeared in Compressed Air Magazine, which has substantially fewer readers than Newsweek.

"Unfortunately," said Miller, "it's not very glitzy news to say that lead's OK." home page   
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