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The Recap: Toxic City

By Bo Méndez

Posted on March 24, 2020

An ad for Dutch Boy brand lead paint
An ad for Dutch Boy brand lead paint Used in Dr. David Rosner's presentation for this program.

Each Recap post highlights a recent public program featured at Brooklyn Historical Society.  Scroll to the bottom of the page to hear the program in its entirety.

How can we combat a toxin that is all around us?

In New York City, which has some of the oldest housing stock in the country, thousands of pounds of lead-based paint and the dust or chips it can produce have accumulated on the walls, ceilings, and other surfaces in public and private housing, as well as schools, offices, and other structures. On Tuesday, February 11, 2020, BHS hosted a public program exploring the history of lead’s permeation of urban spaces.

The evening included a presentation by Dr. David Rosner, Lauterstein Professor of Sociomedical Sciences and History at Columbia University and Co-Director of the Center for the History of Public Health.

A single can of mixed lead paint contains about 17 pounds of lead, Rosner explained. Each coat in an average-sized room results in adding roughly 15 pounds of the neurotoxin to the wall. As the city expanded between 1800 and the early 1900s (doubling in population every ten years along the way), this gradual application of layer after layer of lead took place simultaneously with the growth of awareness of the health risks of lead exposure. Long known to pose risks to workers whose occupations exposed them to lead, the same risks were being posed to consumers of lead products. But if these risks were being discussed, why did lead paint use continue?

For Rosner, the explanation lies with the lead industry, whose leadership created aggressive public relations campaigns extolling the safety and utility of lead paint, while casting blame on a variety of adjacent factors for rises in lead poisoning. “They see it not as a public health problem; they conceive of it as a public relations problem,” Rosner said while sharing internal documents from associations of lead producers where they challenged doctors with lawsuits, blamed conditions like pica (a compulsive behavior in which patients eat non-food and inorganic materials), and lamented the bad publicity of poisoned children.

A common tactic was blaming parents, accusing them of under education and poor care for their children, which insidiously echoed common racial stereotypes about nonwhite families, especially as black and Puerto Rican communities in places like Brooklyn began to speak up about toxicity. These PR campaigns were coupled with widespread advertising campaigns cheerfully targeting children and extolling the virtues of lead paint to ensure clean playrooms, bedrooms, and school rooms.

Following Rosner’s presentation, a panel of experts and activists including Matthew Chachère, staff attorney at the North Manhattan Improvement Corporation (NMIC); Cordell Cleare, a lead poisoning activist and community organizer in Harlem; and Dr. Morri Markowitz, Director of Lead Poisoning Prevention and Treatment at Montefiore Children’s Hospital, discussed topics ranging from Cleare’s personal history seeking treatment for her son who was diagnosed with lead poisoning, to efforts to secure more effective legislation to hold industrial and real estate interests accountable, to the medical impact of lead on the body. WNYC Senior Editor Christopher Werth moderated the conversation.

Listen to the audio of the full program below for an in-depth analysis of the history and impact of lead paint in our city. We hope they help you come to your own understandings of this complex issue.

Listen to the full program here. 

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