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A brief history of how the American public was sold on toxic lead

After toxic lead from old pipes started poisoning the drinking water in Flint, Mich., residents were outraged at the environmental regulators who incorrectly treated the water.

The same thing had happened in Washington, D.C., more than a decade earlier. In both cities, poorly treated water corroded the kind of old lead pipes you can find across the nation.

Meet Richard Rabin, whose first response wasn’t to blame the water regulators.

“My first reaction was, damn it, why were there lead pipes in so many places to begin with?” said Rabin, an anti-lead advocate in Arlington, Mass.

In the 20th century, Rabin and other lead critics say, the lead industry ignored growing suspicions that the element was toxic for children and launched a campaign to ensure that Americans kept buying lead paint for their homes, lead gas for their cars and lead plumbing in their communities.

“Lead helps guard your health,” a National Lead Co. advertisement declared in “National Geographic” in 1923 — a year after the League of Nations suggested banning lead indoor paint because of health concerns.

Scientists now say even small amounts of lead can lower a child’s IQ and stunt development, and large amounts can be deadly. But as public and scientific awareness grew, lead companies fought regulations and tried to minimize reports that lead made people ill, say historians critical of the industry.

“They just denied, denied, denied that lead, whether it was in paint or whether it was in pipes, was making kids sick or was making the population sick in general,” said Rabin, who has written about the lead industry’s battle to increase the use of lead pipes in the last century.

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In recent years, lead and paint-producing companies have said they were just following the law of the era. The companies noted that they stopped producing lead paints years before the government banned them in the 1970s and that the medical standards for elevated lead levels have continued to change even in recent years.

The industry has mostly won the lawsuits filed against it by local governments in recent decades. It did suffer a major defeat in California in 2013, losing a $1.15-billion lawsuit that alleged that several companies knew in the 20th century that they were selling toxic products.

Afterward, industry officials still said they weren’t at fault, arguing that the precise danger of lead at the time “was unknown and unknowable.”

Lead companies “consistently acted in accordance with the recommendations and advice of public health officials, who knew as much if not more than the companies did at all times about lead hazards,” NL Industries, Sherwin-Williams, and ConAgra said in a statement after the loss, which remains under appeal.

A century ago, lead companies pushed lead products to consumers as a healthy option, even as reports of lead poisonings circulated in the news and companies like the National Lead Co. had taken steps to limit lead poisoning among its own workers.

“Lead concealed in the walls and under the floors of many modern buildings helps to give the best sanitation,” said the company’s 1923 ad in “National Geographic,"  with the “Dutch Boy” logo showing a young boy with a paint brush and a bucket of paint. “Lead, therefore, is contributing to the health, comfort and convenience of people today as it did when Rome was a center of civilization.”

The warnings about lead poisoning, however, are also as old as Roman civilization — as is the word for plumbing, which comes from the Latin word for lead, “plumbum.”

The Roman architect Vitruvius thought earthenware pipes would be healthier for drinking water than lead pipes, noting the unhealthy pallor of lead workers. (Contemporary scholars, though, are skeptical of the claim that lead poisoning alone brought down the Roman Empire.)

In the 19th century, more scientists were starting to catch on to lead, as did Charles Dickens. One of the author’s characters complained of lead-mill workers: "Some of them gets lead-pisoned soon, and some of them gets lead-pisoned later, and some, but not many, niver."

But lead was both tough and malleable, and indoor plumbing was needed to combat immediate health threats such as typhoid and cholera. So cities put in lead plumbing.

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“Engineers are just, ‘You gotta use lead, you gotta use lead, if you use iron, the pipes will last 20 years, if you use lead, the pipes will last 200 years.’ And they do,” said Werner Troesken, a professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh.

By 1900, 40 out of America’s 50 largest cities had lead pipes, and large cities such as Chicago mandated their use in building codes, said Troesken, the author of “The Great Lead Water Pipe Disaster,” a history published in 2006.

Cities now treat drinking water with materials like ortho-phosphates that coat the inside of the pipes and prevent lead from leaching out. The problem, as happened in Flint, is when improperly treated water corrodes the insides of those pipes.

Today, experts agree the more frequent threat of poisoning comes from old lead paint, predominantly in minority and lower-income housing.

But a century ago, Troesken says, the bigger problem was lead pipes. In places where corrosive water was more likely to leach lead out of pipes, according to Troesken’s research, residents eventually had lower incomes, worse educational achievements and were less likely to own homes.

“Nobody could see that in 1900. Nobody understood what was happening,” he said.

Concerns were growing, however. Through the 1910s and 1920s, American researchers began to build evidence that lead products had poisoned children.

By 1929, the newly formed Lead Industries Assn. — the now-defunct advocacy group representing dozens of companies — was well aware of the growing concerns, with a group secretary complaining at a directors’ meeting of the “undesirable publicity regarding lead-poisoning.”

The association fought to protect its business.

In addition to promoting the use of lead, the association threatened lawsuits against its opponents and gave grants to groups that supported its point of view, said David Rosner, a professor at Columbia University, who gained access to a trove of internal Lead Industries Assn. documents as part of a New York City lawsuit against the industry.

“They did everything that becomes known as the signature of the tobacco industry,” said Rosner, who has aided anti-lead lawsuits and co-wrote the 2013 book “Lead Wars.” “In fact, they were really pioneered by the lead industries. ... The [Lead Industries Assn.] can take credit for creating this giant doubt industry.”

Rabin, the Massachusetts advocate, scoured internal Lead Industries Assn. documents that showed how the group sought to influence building codes.

“It must be remembered the adoption of laws ... is slow work, but once adopted, make a relatively permanent requirement of lead,” the association’s secretary approvingly reported to the group in 1938, according to an article Rabin published in the American Journal of Public Health. “In many cities, we have successfully opposed ordinance or regulation revisions which would have reduced or eliminated the use of lead.”

In 1946, a Lead Industries Assn. leader said that if attacks on lead's safety weren’t challenged, they “may very easily lead to the sponsoring of totally unwarranted state and federal legislation of a regulatory or prohibitive nature.”

And that’s what eventually happened. After scientists began in the 1970s to persuasively demonstrate the extent of lead’s danger to children, the federal government banned lead in residential paints in 1978 and lead pipes in 1986.

Dozens of lawsuits against the industry began pouring in from around the country, and although it was largely unsuccessful, the litigation shone a light on the lead association’s efforts.

By 2002, the lead association, reportedly lacking enough insurance to continue facing years of lawsuits, filed for bankruptcy.

“Looking at their internal documents and their minutes and meetings and discussions of lead poisoning, from the very first year onward, it’s kind of sickening,” Rosner said. “They see what should be identified as a major health crisis early on, they could have prevented decades of children being poisoned, and they saw it as a public-relations problem.”

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