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February 20, 2002

HistoryOld Paint: A Medical History of Childhood Lead-Paint Poisoning in the United States to 1980

Author Affiliations

Harriet S.MeyerMD, Contributing EditorDavid H.MorseMS, Journal Review EditorRobertHoganMD, adviser for new media


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JAMA. 2002;287(7):916-917. doi:10.1001/jama.287.7.916-JBK0220-2-1

In Old Paint Peter C. English seeks to overturn conventional wisdom on the history of childhood lead poisoning, but his evidence and analysis are wholly unconvincing.

Health professionals in the 1950s assumed that childhood plumbism was an established but previously unseen problem. "For the first time," confided occupational health official May Mayers in 1950, "I am beginning to be really concerned that there may be many more children who develop lead poisoning and die of it throughout the country than we had hitherto suspected."1 Most histories of childhood lead poisoning start from this perspective, while differing on just who or what is responsible for the "silent epidemic." Some emphasize the role of the lead industry, arguing that it duped potential regulators into accepting the myth that lead paint posed no threat to the public24; others, while acknowledging the role of industry, spread the blame around, implicating cultural factors, political realities, and limits on biomedical vision.5,6 In both scenarios, hundreds of children suffered or died from lead poisoning each year for decades until the medical and public health communities were roused into action.

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