As I belatedly thumbed through my foot-high stack of unread issues of Science and C&EN after a series of prolonged health crises, I was deeply gratified to see an updated retrospective on the effects of childhood lead exposure. The excellent article “The Crimes of Lead” is the first serious coverage of a small segment of this vast saga that I have seen to address the overall chemical community (C&EN, Feb. 3, page 27). In part, or in whole, my own and numerous health crises and chronic conditions of many other Americans of all ages are likely attributable to our lead exposure over the decades culminating in the 1960s through ’80s when tetraethyllead reigned supreme among several devastating toxic assaults on planetary well-being.
I was somewhat bemused that acknowledgment of Herbert L. Needleman’s contributions did not refer to his classic paper in the March 29, 1979, New England Journal of Medicine. Medical and other professional acknowledgment of the scourge of lead poisoning predates the time span of C&EN coverage by decades, actually centuries. The incidental correlation between ill health and lead exposure was documented about the time of Hippocrates and reverified by Charlemagne, among others. For those antiregulationists obsessed with their perceived unflinching rigidity of the thinking of the Founding Fathers, many references to lead and ill health by Benjamin Franklin may come as a curiosity.
It’s about time chemists backed off from pleading the now near-pseudoscientific aphorism made famous by the tobacco industry’s “correlation is not causation.” This has become a near equivalent of the Fifth Amendment to the Constitution in order to evade responsibility for the obvious consequences of decades of wanton public exposure to lead by numerous “innocent” industries.
Were it that the effects of lead on the nervous system and other organ systems were confined to youth. I suspect that the current epidemic of dementia among the aging will not slacken until the children of the ’60s through ’80s die off. Also, lead-based costs to the health care system and quality of life of the world’s population will continue as long as lead is a ubiquitous pollutant, which may be forever.
Interestingly, we still do not have a physical method for quantification of the stored body burden of lead in the human body. Without it, we will find it difficult to prove scientifically to unbelievers that which has long been apparent to many of us.
Lelia M. Coyne