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Norton’s Lobbying Shows Her Colors

David Rosner is a professor of history and public health at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health. Gerald Markowitz is a professor of history at John Jay College and City University of New York's Graduate Center

As contention over President-elect George W. Bush’s nominations for Labor and Justice grabs the headlines, it is important that Gale Norton’s nomination for secretary of the Interior not fly under the radar. Norton’s role as a lobbyist for NL Industries, previously known as National Lead Co., is a terrifying harbinger of what may befall the nation if the Senate confirms her.

National Lead is responsible for what is perhaps the nation’s most devastating children’s health crisis. For decades, National Lead promoted and distributed millions of gallons of lead-based paint under its “Dutch Boy” brand name. Lead paint has led to the death and brain damage of thousands of children.

That Norton lobbied for a company that pushed for toxic lead paint to the point where it covers the walls of a major portion of our housing stock, particularly in urban areas and older suburbs, at best indicates an extraordinary ignorance of the corporate cultures within which she works. At worst, it shows a dangerous bias for the worst polluters of the American environment.

National Lead’s irresponsible corporate culture is not something that Norton could have missed, for it extends deep into the history of the company. By the mid-1920s, numerous cases of lead paint intoxication among infants and toddlers, resulting in severe brain damage and even death, were documented in the medical literature.

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Despite this, NL Industries worked hard to popularize the use of lead paint through a direct marketing campaign aimed at young children. Through the use of its Dutch Boy logo, the nation was, for decades, lulled into a false sense of security about the safety of lead paint on walls, woodwork and window sills with which children constantly came in contact.

National Lead began a campaign that sought to, in the words of one of its early marketing ads, “cater to the children.” In thousands of ads, brochures and visits to schools, 4-H Clubs and hospitals, the company joined with its trade association, the Lead Industries Assn., to counteract negative publicity. Most pernicious were the children’s paint books distributed free to children. Children were encouraged to read the poems that accompanied the illustrations of the Dutch Boy riding on bars of lead, playing with lead soldiers, mixing white lead with colors, and painting children’s toys, furniture and bedroom walls.

In the 1930s and 1940s as well, the company spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising, promotion and lobbying efforts to make sure that “pure white lead” was insulated from the growing chorus of voices calling for its elimination from the interior of houses. National Lead encouraged teachers and parents to “get after the school trustees to have each room repainted” with “flat paint made of Dutch Boy white-lead and flatting oil.” In another more poignant promotion, Dutch Boy shows a crawling infant touching a painted wall: “There is no cause for worry when fingerprint smudges or dirt spots appear on a wall painted with Dutch Boy white-lead,” the ad reassures parents.

The Dutch Boy Painter, a periodical published by National Lead, carried an article during the Depression on using lead paint to stencil “humorous designs such as cartoons, caricatures and pictorials in recreation rooms, game rooms, bars, etc. . . . for use in nurseries, kindergartens, play rooms and other places where children gather.”

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Throughout its history, National Lead proudly bragged of the success of its marketing campaign to children. This marketing of the Dutch Boy image was an essential element of National Lead’s profitability and the rise of its sales from $80 million in 1939 to more than $320 million in 1948.

National Lead and its trade association, the LIA, encouraged shifting responsibility for this tragedy from lead paint to the parents and children themselves. They shaped the research agendas of scientists and intimidated researchers who identified lead paint as the source of children’s learning disorders.

When medical and public opinion were so great that it could not deny the link between lead paint and childhood lead poisoning, the LIA promoted the idea that poisoned children suffered from a preexisting condition called pica--a “morbid craving” for lead paint chips. Similarly it argued that parents living in slum dwellings were responsible for not properly supervising their children and not maintaining clean homes.

For many decades to come, we will continue to see thousands of children entering our emergency rooms with the symptoms of lead poisoning. If Norton is ignorant of this company’s seedy history, then it is frightening indeed that she might be in charge of overseeing the use of our nation’s mineral resources and public lands and protecting the public from other irresponsible industries intent on exploiting the world we live in for their own profit.

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