U.S. National Institutes of Health

for over a century, citizens have confronted lead industries, housing authorities, and elected officials to protect their health against the dangers of lead poisoning.

When people ingest lead—by breathing contaminated air, drinking contaminated water, or accidently eating leaded paint chips—they can become very sick. Lead poisoning causes neurological problems and sometimes even death. Today, researchers believe that no amount of exposure to lead is safe for children.

Lead had become popular because of its malleability and corrosion resistant properties, making it ideal in construction. Lead was cheap and pervaded different trades and some communities. This leaded legacy persists to today.

Manufacturers used lead when producing items demanded by Americans in the new consumer culture. While companies made products for profit, workers often became sick or died from lead exposure. This spurred research into lead poisoning. Alice Hamilton—physician and pioneer of industrial worker safety—published investigative reports about the dangers of lead poisoning faced by workers in several industries.

The gasoline industry added tetraethyl lead to fuel to improve car performance. Automobile exhaust contained lead and poisonous fumes spread for miles. Refinery laborers were exposed to hazardous levels of lead. Many became ill and some died. The dangers of leaded gasoline were known in the 1920s. However, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century, when scientist Clair Patterson’s research proved the pervasiveness of environmental lead contamination that things changed. In 1970, the U.S. Congress passed the Clean Air Act, which resulted in the elimination of leaded gasoline in the U.S. by the late 1980s.

To improve durability and drying time, manufacturers added leaded pigments to household paints. Soon, people with leaded paint in their homes risked exposure to toxic dust and paint chips. Children, who are especially vulnerable to the effects of lead poisoning, were in grave danger. In 1907, the National Lead Company created the wholesome Dutch Boy advertising logo to give parents false reassurance about the dangers of leaded products.

In 1959, the Bruco Battery Company illegally dumped 500 used battery casings in an African American neighborhood in Chicago’s West Side. Poor residents in need of fuel for their homes used the discarded battery casings as an alternative to coal and wood. Burning the casings released a smoky cloud of toxic lead sulphate that poisoned unsuspecting families. Local activists criticized the company for using this community as a toxic dumping ground.

Spurred on by the long history of lead in the environment and Chicago’s leaded battery crisis in the late 1950s, civil rights activists mobilized against the threat of household leaded paint. Activists campaigned against the housing officials and the lead industry, with each blaming the other. Housing officials suggested the paint used in public housing was tainted with lead and was the lead industry’s problem. The lead industry argued that poor maintenance of the housing units was to blame for the danger and the lack of personal responsibility of tenants. Activists campaigned to remove lead from public housing in Chicago where children were vulnerable to toxic substances. Officials, landlords, and industry leaders did not remediate the situation.

Lead poison on the wall, Kills little guys and little dolls, It kills them big and it kills them small, And the landlord does nothing to stop it at all, That death on the wall.
- lyrics from “Lead Poison on the Wall,” © Jimmy Collier