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Poison for Profit

By Ondine Jean-Baptiste

Posted on April 9, 2020

Everybody gets sick. For most of us, our health is a deeply personal and even private topic. But sickness and health are also public issues that have long shaped Brooklyn’s economy, its built environment, its laws and institutions, and its diverse communities.

Taking Care of Brooklyn: Stories of Sickness and Health is one of Brooklyn Historical Society’s current exhibitions which explores how centuries of Brooklynites have understood sickness and health. Through the experiences of everyday Brooklynites giving, receiving, demanding, and being denied health care, Taking Care of Brooklyn shows us that sickness is as much a social experience as a biological one. Portions of this blogpost have been directly excerpted from the exhibition.

One section of the exhibition examines how industrial waste marred the health of workers and residents alike, thanks to decisions of business owners and minimal industrial regulation. By the turn of the 20th century, Brooklyn was a center of industry, and that came at a very real health cost to its residents. While many high waste industries buoyed Brooklyn’s economy, Taking Care of Brooklyn focuses on lead poisoning, from both local industries and the proliferation of everyday products laden with lead. Working-class communities and communities of color were more likely to be exposed to lead, not just because of their proximity to factories or their labor within them, but because products containing lead were common in everyday life at the time. These communities were also most likely to be ignored by politicians and public health professionals, prompting Brooklynites to pursue grassroots activism to challenge careless actions by industry and government inaction.

By the 20th century, Brooklyn was a global industrial powerhouse. Hundreds of factories across the borough produced goods such as glass, porcelain, petroleum, sugar, cast iron, construction materials, and more to be used by consumers all over the world. This economic boom however, came at a very real health cost to the borough’s residents—especially the working poor who lived near industrial sites. Factories produced massive amounts of industrial waste every day and because of decisions made by business owners and minimal industrial regulation, these by- products often were not managed responsibly. As a result, both workers and residents suffered from asthma, asbestosis, various types of cancer, and other afflictions. Brooklyn’s factory- produced goods that not only harmed workers, but consumers as well.

Brooklyn was a center of the production of lead, which was used in countless everyday products from house paint to food cans. By the 1950s, Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhoods had become ground zero for a lead poisoning epidemic. What exactly constitutes lead poisoning? Humans can be poisoned by consuming or inhaling a substance containing lead, and any exposure to lead is dangerous. At lower levels, a person will experience nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. Higher levels of exposure destroy nerve cells, cause numbness and tingling, a loss of coordination and vision, irreparable brain damage, and even death.

Brooklyn factories produced white lead for use in paint. Lead speeds up the drying process, increases durability, and produces bright, lasting colors. When older paint chips or produces dust that can be ingested or inhaled, it can lead to irreversible brain damage. In 1959, New York banned the use of lead paint; the federal government eventually banned it in 1978. Older homes with layers of lead-based paint, however, may still place residents at risk.

Brooklyn was a center of the production of lead, which was used in countless everyday products from house paint to food cans. By the 1950s, Brooklyn’s poorest neighborhoods had become ground zero for a lead poisoning epidemic. What exactly constitutes lead poisoning? Humans can be poisoned by consuming or inhaling a substance containing lead, and any exposure to lead is dangerous. At lower levels, a person will experience nausea, vomiting, and fatigue. Higher levels of exposure destroy nerve cells, cause numbness and tingling, a loss of coordination and vision, irreparable brain damage, and even death.

Since at least the mid-19th century, Brooklyn factories produced lead compounds and a variety of products that included lead. One of the earliest companies was Atlantic White Lead, founded in the 1840s. It produced white lead, which was used in paint and other pigments such as food dye and cosmetics. Many local manufacturers also used lead in pipes, fixtures, and cans, which exposed food and water to the poisonous substance. Mass production of lead products put workers and consumers alike at risk of lead exposure well into the 20th century.

Workers in factories making lead compounds or products were exposed to the substance through their skin or by breathing in dust or fumes. While workers could take steps, such as wearing masks to minimize exposure, there existed no industry-wide safety standards in the early 20th century, and many lead companies made little effort to educate employees.

Some cans have been sealed with a tin-lead alloy soldering that can contaminate food. Though the United States banned lead solder in food packaging cans in 1995, it is still used in other countries, and sometimes in items sold in the United States.

Lead poisoning was not a secret. The material’s dangerous properties were well-known since antiquity. By the 1910s, public health advocates and scientists began publicizing research showing the dangers of lead to workers and children in particular. Newspapers such as The Brooklyn Daily Eagle regularly reported on the dangers of lead and its harmful impact on workers. At the same time, the lead industry waged its own publicity campaign downplaying these risks.

Lead has been used in everything from ancient water pipes to modern-day lipstick. Lead makes colors brighter and longer lasting, it is dense and affordable, and it allows car engines to run quietly and efficiently. As early as the 1920s however, corporations creating lead and products containing lead privately acknowledged the dangers that the substance posed to workers, consumers, and the environment. While the lead industry made some attempts to educate its workers about procedures to minimize lead exposure, it simultaneously downplayed the risk that the material posed to workers and consumers publicly. The industry even launched long-running advertising campaigns marketing lead products as hallmarks of modern American life. Meanwhile, a silent epidemic of childhood lead poisoning was growing in industrialized cities across the country.

Leaded fuel sign, 1930s–1950s. Collection of David Rosner

Lead has long been used as an “anti-knock” additive in gasoline to make engines quieter and more efficient. Corporations had been aware of anti-knock alternatives such as ethanol since the 1920s, however they continued to focus their development on lead-based formulas. Leaded gasoline exhaust is harmful when inhaled and poses particular danger to those who live near busy roads, highways, and bus depots. Though most countries have phased out leaded gasoline, a small number of nations still use it as of 2019.

Throughout the 20th century and continuing into the 21st century, lead poisoning cases have tended to concentrate in neighborhoods with majority non-white residents, higher poverty rates, and a preponderance of older, poorly maintained residential buildings. Central Brooklyn neighborhoods like Bedford-Stuyvesant, Bushwick, and Brownsville earned the moniker “The Lead Belt” because they accounted for the majority of lead poisoning cases in the borough. Lead poisoning disproportionately affected children, who were more likely to consume lead paint chips or lead dust prevalent in older tenements and public housing buildings. In the face of their children’s deteriorating health, residents of Brooklyn’s Lead Belt dealt with inadequate medical care, the prejudices of doctors who often dismissed their concerns or misdiagnosed lead poisoning, and the city’s insufficient attempts to educate residents on the dangers of lead and to force landlords to undergo lead paint abatement.

Map of Brooklyn highlighting East New York, Bushwick, Bedford Stuyvesant, Crown Heights, southern Williamsburg, northern East Flatbush, Clinton Hill, Navy Yard, Fort Green, and Brownsville neighborhoods as "lead belt".

Young Brooklynites have played a key role in the fight against lead poisoning and other illnesses tied to industry. By the mid 1960s, Brooklyn residents began to create screening and education programs to reach neighborhoods in The Lead Belt. While doctors, public health workers, and volunteers were important parts of these early programs, so were young people. Students from Brooklyn College and the Neighborhood Youth Corps, many of whom were residents of the most affected neighborhoods, participated in efforts to educate and test residents.

Many youth groups were motivated to make changes themselves because they believed that the government was not doing enough. Though the city had banned the sale and use of lead paint in 1959, older or poorly maintained housing continued to put many Brooklynites at risk. Efforts to minimize the damage were often haphazard, and the law placed responsibility on tenants to report the existence of lead after someone (usually a child) had been poisoned.

Today, lead poisoning remains a salient health issue in Brooklyn, and young people in working-class neighborhoods and communities of color continue to push back against local industries undermining the health and safety of Brooklynites.

Taking Care of Brooklyn: Stories of Sickness and Health is made possible through generous support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Office of the Brooklyn Borough President, Pfizer Foundation, Wellcome Trust, JP Morgan Chase & Co., the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, and The Brooklyn Hospital Foundation. Related programs are also made possible by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature, and are supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the New York City Council.

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