History of Medicine
The first reports of lead poisoning were published over a century ago. Delayed adoption of meaningful regulation, however, ultimately had terrible environmental and health consequences for the generations that followed. Early twentieth century reformers including Dr. Alice Hamilton, who is often considered the founder of the field of industrial hygiene in America, documented the extent of lead poisoning among the workforce and advocated cleanup measures. Unfortunately, adding to the massive quantities of lead used in paints, the introduction of tetraethyl lead in gasoline in the early 1920s made lead nearly ubiquitous in the environment. Following terrifying rumors about the deadliness of tetraethyl lead in 1924, the Surgeon General recommended temporarily suspending the production and sale of leaded gasoline the following year. The Coolidge Administration appointed an industry-dominated investigatory committee, but with only seven months to design, run, and analyze its tests the panel ruled that there were no grounds for prohibiting the use of leaded gas. Until mid-century, lead industry-sponsored research dominated the scientific literature on the origins of lead poisoning and consistently understated or ignored the true threat posed by lead. It was not until the 1960s that a corps of scientists and physicians led by Clair Patterson, J. Julian Chisolm, and Herbert Needleman mobilized public concern about lead levels by focusing on a series of well-publicized cases. Long-term, low level effects of lead poisoning can result in problems with speech, learning, attention, behavior, and mental processing, and chronic high levels of lead exposure can lead to anemia, visible tooth damage, changes in kidney function, and nervous system damage resulting in seizures, comas, and death. The posters below represent this knowledge as well as new public health campaigns and advocacy groups that have developed warnings and information about prevention and testing.
In 1970, the Surgeon General officially recognized lead poisoning as a potential health problem for the first time. The Lead Paint Poisoning Prevention Act of 1971 prohibited the use of lead-based paint in federal buildings and housing units and in the manufacturing of cooking utensils, toys, and furniture. Lead paint disproportionately affected urban children who frequently lived amidst rundown conditions with chipped and peeling paint. This poster from the Department of Health and Human Services adopts the authoritative image of the medical doctor as an advocate of lead tests for children. The text warns parents that children might by poisoning themselves by eating paint chips and offers free lead tests for children. In the late 1970s, an estimated 15 million children had unsafe lead levels. By 1991 that number had been reduced to 1.7 million.
Childhood lead poisoning is still considered the most preventable environmental disease of young children. In 2002, an estimated 890,000 U.S. children had elevated blood lead levels. This poster from the Vermont Department of Health in the 1990s identifies one of the most insidious features of child lead poisoning-often times it is undetectable until damage has already been done. Featuring an illustration of an apparently healthy and happy child playing with a toy truck, the tension between the image and text reflects the illusory nature of lead poisoning itself. As the viewer might think the poster is about a healthy child, so might the parent think their child is healthy, based on appearances. The message is that in each case the child may be sick without any external symptoms. A simple blood test is promoted in order to prevent a lifetime spoiled by the irreversible damage caused by lead poisoning.