Bill Moyers: Our Media Is Polluted by Toxic Lies About the Risks Posed by Lead


INTRO: Science can be a battleground — witness the politics of climate change, the teaching of evolution, the uncharted terrain of genetic modification and stem cell research, among other contentious issues. But when industries release untested chemicals into our environment — putting profits before public health — our children are the first to suffer. Nowhere is this more troubling than in the ongoing story of lead poisoning.

Bill talks with David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, public health historians who’ve been taking on the chemical industry for years — writing about the hazards of industrial pollution and the neglect of worker safety — despite industry efforts to undermine them. Their latest book, Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children, is the culmination of 20 years of research. Markowitz and Rosner warn that, for young children, there’s no safe level of exposure to this dangerous toxin still lurking in millions of homes.

The authors discuss thwarted efforts to hold the lead industry accountable, failed attempts to find cheap solutions, and the cost to the future of our children. As long as the chemical industry and its powerful lobbies prevail in blocking efforts to reform outdated laws, Markowitz and Rosner say, we will continue to float in a soup of toxins — inhaling, drinking, and absorbing chemicals that we may learn, years later, have put us all in harm’s way.


BILL MOYERS: At the end of a week that reminded us to be ever vigilant about the dangers of government overreaching its authority, whether by the long arm of the IRS or the Justice Department, let’s pause to think about another threat, from too much private power over public policy.

All too often, instead of acting as a brake, government becomes the enabler of corporate power and greed, undermining the very rules and regulations intended to keep us safe.

Think of inadequate inspections of food and those infections which kill 3,000 Americans each year and make many millions sick. Think of the 85,000 industrial chemicals available today. Only a handful have been tested for safety. Think of the explosion of perhaps as much as half a million pounds of ammonium nitrate in that Texas fertilizer plant. People can die when government winks at bad corporate practices.

As long as there are insufficient checks and balances on big business and its powerful lobbies, you and I are at their mercy. Which is why their ability to buy off public officials is an assault on democracy and a threat to our lives and health. Keep that in mind as I introduce you to David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz.

Some years ago, their book, Deceit and Denial, told how the chemical industry tried to conceal the truth about untested and unregulated chemicals in our food, water, and air. Twenty companies responded with a vicious campaign to smear their reputations. That proved hard to do, actually, impossible.

Gerald Markowitz is a distinguished professor of history at both John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the City University of New York’s Graduate Center. David Rosner is co-director of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia University where he also teaches science and history.

This is their new book, which revisits a chemical menace you might have thought was behind us, but isn’t: Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children.

BILL MOYERS: Gerald Markowitz, David Rosner, welcome.

DAVID ROSNER: Thank you.


BILL MOYERS: Your book concludes that after all these years, lead is still a problem.

GERALD MARKOWITZ: Absolutely. You know, in some ways the story of lead is a great success. We’ve reduced the amount of lead in children's blood and we've gotten lead out of gasoline and we've gotten lead out of paint. But there are still children who have too much lead in their blood. And it is endangering their life chances, endangering their futures.

BILL MOYERS: Does it kill?

DAVID ROSNER: It doesn't kill anymore. It used to send kids into convulsions, into comas and into paroxysms and ultimately killed them up until the 1980s. But we've gotten lead levels down to the point where we're now discovering new, even in some sense, more troubling problems.

BILL MOYERS: What's the most important thing you've discovered about lead since we last talked?

DAVID ROSNER: Well, that in what we would once have considered miniscule amounts lead in children can cause neurological damage, causes behavioral problems, attention deficit disorders, dyslexia. Studies show that children who are exposed in utero can have permanent neurological changes that put them at risk later in life for learning disabilities that lead to failure in school and IQ loss. There are a whole series of problems that we never even thought about in the old days, so to speak.

GERALD MARKOWITZ: It's shocking that we know that children can be prevented from any kind of lead poisoning if they are, live in a home that is lead free. And this is no longer, you know, a priority of the country. We still have many homes millions of homes that contain lead that are endangering our children.

BILL MOYERS: Is it the cost of getting rid of the lead from homes that are already established and we're living in, is that the main barrier?

DAVID ROSNER: For some it is. But the history of public health, and that's what we are, historians, is rife with examples of decisions that are very costly that we decided are necessary for the population as a whole.

But somehow because we have in some sense accepted a definition of what the problem is and who the victims are and we've devalued their lives, we decided not to address this issue because it's quote, “too costly.”

GERALD MARKOWITZ: We really made a morally bankrupt calculation that it is less costly to endanger the health and futures of our children rather than to protect them by paying to remove lead from their homes.

DAVID ROSNER: The message really should be is we need to really think of lead as one symbol, one symptom of this much larger problem of the pollution of our children, pollution of their lives, the pollution of all of us from a whole host of toxic materials that we are, we've grown accustomed to using and tend to put out of our consciousness.

BILL MOYERS: When I first met you, people were saying, scientists were saying, that the smaller the dose of lead, the exposure to lead, the safer it would be.

GERALD MARKOWITZ: Scientists now say that it is very likely there is no safe level of lead, that any amount of lead in a child's body, in a child's blood, you know, causes a variety of neurological and intellectual problems. So this is really a sea-change in our understanding of what, the amount of a toxin that causes a problem for children.

DAVID ROSNER: We no longer have children convulsing and going into comas. In other parts of the world they still are from lead exposures. In Africa, in Nigeria, children still are exposed to huge amounts of lead from a variety of sources. And a recent article indicates that we're still selling lead paint, for example, to other countries despite the fact that we in this country no longer use it on our walls. But if you look at where lead poisoning is most prevalent, when you look at the communities that are most affected by lead they're usually communities, poor communities, working class communities, parts of the cities that are more run down because the lead that is dangerous is the lead that comes off of walls of old buildings. And walls of old buildings that are not maintained give off more lead than walls of old buildings that have been recently renovated. It's hard to believe how much lead there is in an old home. I mean, we often think of paint as just a lot of liquid with a little bit of color. But in fact, when you looked at lead paint and you lifted it in your grandfather's garage or, you know, my grandfather's garage, it was very, very heavy. And that's because about, in that can of paint there was 15 pounds of lead. And that was being painted on walls, three coats on each wall, every five to ten years, whatever the renovation took. We were putting literally hundreds and hundreds of pounds of lead, a deadly toxin at that point, that a small fingernail's worth could actually cause convulsions, into the children's environment.

BILL MOYERS: Well, there were ads actually promoting lead paint as the right paint for your home.

DAVID ROSNER: They said that lead paint was a friend of the child and that it could be spread on any surface and it could be fun to do. And they showed these ads in which children are painting their toys, painting their cabinets, painting their walls, painting their furniture with a poison. At the same time when all these cases are appearing in the medical press about lead poisoned children, at the same time when in their own internal documents they're saying, we have these examples, we have, we're being attacked because children and babies are getting poisoned by lead on their cribs.

And so you see this kind of progression of this problem from the 1930s when it once killed children and sent them into comas straight through the early 2000s and now when the CDC says there are a half million children, I mean half million children at risk, a half million children with elevated blood lead levels. This would be a national epidemic, I mean, if this were meningitis, if this were polio. I mean, could you imagine the reaction of the society?

GERALD MARKOWITZ: And the industry said over 50 years ago that this was an insoluble problem, it was a problem of, caused by slums, it was a problem caused by who they called uneducable parents. And so that they washed their hands of the problem and they have still washed their hands of the problem. Parents have played, excuse me, paid the cost of lead poisoning. Landlords have even paid the cost of lead poisoning. The government has paid the cost of lead poisoning. The industry has not paid to get that lead off the walls so future generations of children can be protected.

BILL MOYERS: What your critics say is, look, it's like gasoline in cars. We didn't intend harmful effects to come from a product that was fueling America's economy. We found out later and we're trying to cut back on emissions.

This applies as well to lead and other toxins in our environment. Nobody intended it, it proved to be a consequence of, as even you say in here, the enormous amount of material we've taken out of the earth and turned into the engine of our prosperity.

GERALD MARKOWITZ: Well, unfortunately they didn't give them the information about the dangers of lead that they had. They knew that lead was killing children in the 1930s. They knew that researchers were uncovering lead and they were fighting those, the diagnoses of lead poisoning in children. They, even into the 1970s and '80s, they went after researchers like Herbert Needleman who were uncovering the low levels of lead that were damaging children. They were not innocent purveyors of a product. They were actively involved in the political dialog attempting to increase their profits at the expense of public health.

BILL MOYERS: I interviewed Herbert Needleman some years ago for a documentary on Kids and Chemicals. Let's take a look.

BILL MOYERS in Kids and Chemicals: In the late 1970s Dr. Needleman studied the baby teeth of healthy schoolchildren in two Boston suburbs […]

DR. HERBERT NEEDLEMAN in Kids and Chemicals: When we looked at the data, we found that children who had high lead in their teeth, but who had never been identified as having any problems with lead, had lower IQ scores, poorer language function, and poorer attention.

BILL MOYERS in Kids and Chemicals: It was a stunning discovery, and no one knew it better than the lead industry. Leaded gasoline was the single greatest source of lead exposure, and as a result of Needleman’s work the Environmental Protection Agency sped up efforts to ban it. The lead industry fought back, denying Needleman’s science.

JEROME COLE in Kids and Chemicals: Lead has been used in gasoline for over 60 years. There’s simply no evidence that anyone in the general public has ever been harmed by this usage […]

DR. PHILIP LANDRIGAN in Kids and Chemicals: The lead industry attacked it viciously and they attacked Dr. Needleman himself. They accused him of scientific misconduct and they actually filed charges against him at his university and at the National Institutes of Health.

DR. HERBERT NEEDLEMAN in Kids and Chemicals: It’s like a death sentence. If you’re found guilty of scientific misconduct you’re out of business; your reputation is ruined; you’re through.[…]

BILL MOYERS in Kids and Chemicals: The assault went on for three years. For three years, Dr. Needleman stood his ground.

DR. PHILIP LANDRIGAN in Kids and Chemicals: Those were tough years in Dr. Needleman’s life. Eventually those charges were shown to be baseless and the people that brought them forward who had portrayed themselves as neutral scientists were, in fact, revealed as consultants to the lead industry. It took several years for the truth to out. But he triumphed.

DR. HERBERT NEEDLEMAN in Kids and Chemicals: I knew I was right. I mean, I knew that the work was good. I knew that my colleagues who worked with me on it were honest people. But I realized that science is not always the polite intellectual activity that it appears to be; that environmental science sometimes becomes something closer to warfare.

BILL MOYERS: So that's why you called this Lead Wars, I assume?

DAVID ROSNER: That's right.


DAVID ROSNER: That's where the title comes from. This is one of the, you know, tactics of this industry, of these industries to essentially control the regulators, to find ways of both undermining, in Herb Needleman's case, the integrity or the scientific integrity of the researcher by trying to attack his personality or his research, his data, but also trying to find ways of getting the regulatory agencies in government to see anyone who in any way cast doubt on their product as biased as opposed to a neutral observer. But it wasn't only lead. The more industries we look at, the more like other industries the lead story is.


DAVID ROSNER: Well, you look at the asbestos story. Our homes are still, you know, covered with asbestos. It's on, in old homes, it's on the shingles that, you know, we use, it's in the floor coverings that, the vinyl that we use, it’s on the roofs. It's on our boil, older boilers still, but when you look at the history of asbestos the knowledge about that product goes back literally decades and decades and decades.

Then you look at the silica industry, the, when you look at the vinyl chloride industry, when you look at the PCB story. And the same unfortunate, the same unfolding of, what can you say but corporate greed.

GERALD MARKOWITZ: And in addition to the corporate greed there is their war on science. The attacks on global warming. There is a war on bisphenol A, which is in a wide variety of products, it is virtually in every human being in the United States--

BILL MOYERS: What is it?

GERALD MARKOWITZ: It is basically an ingredient in plastic that is in the linings of cans, it's even in receipts that we get every day from a clerk at a store, the credit card receipt. And we take that and that has bisphenol A on it. And we end up absorbing that.

There's been a tremendous amount of research that shows that it is an endocrine disruptor, that it causes a disruption of the endocrine system that can affect reproduction, that can affect development of the fetus. But it's also a carcinogen. And so this is a real problem that the industry has been fighting to cast doubt on really amazing science that has been done by a wide variety of people.

BILL MOYERS: Just this April California's Environmental Protection Agency put it on its toxins list. The American Chemistry Council is suing California to keep this off of that list of dangerous substances.

GERALD MARKOWITZ: And they are supporting research that, as David said creates doubt about the independent scientists who are finding these variety of subtle and not so subtle effects. And they are determined, as they did, as we talked about in tobacco, in global warming, in lead, in asbestos, to make people not be convinced. And if they're not convinced, if they have a question in their mind, then they can continue to sell their chemical.

BILL MOYERS: You two have been yourselves the subject of harassment, legal suits, attacks, efforts to discredit you, right?


DAVID ROSNER: There was an article in a legal journal that kind of warned us about what was going to happen. It talked about the title of our book--

GERALD MARKOWITZ: Which was Deadly Dust.

DAVID ROSNER: --which was called Deadly Dust. And it said, you know, we could let Rosner and Markowitz play by themselves in their own little play yard of historians, but they, their book has appeared in lawsuits against the industry. And it has become the dominant narrative or it's becoming the dominant narrative of how silicosis is understood. Therefore we have to do something about them. They didn't quite say it in those words, but that was the implication.

GERALD MARKOWITZ: Well, they said, you know, be an academic and talk only to academics. But when you talk to the public that's dangerous.

DAVID ROSNER: And then very shortly afterwards we found Deceit and Denial, the next book we did came under enormous attack. They actually subpoenaed the press, they subpoenaed the foundation that supported us, the Milbank Foundation.

GERALD MARKOWITZ: They subpoenaed the peer reviewers of the book for a university press.

DAVID ROSNER: And then they hired a historian to call us unethical, lousy historians, to attack minor footnotes in the book that weren't wrong, but he claimed were wrong. It was quite an attack. And I think the biggest thing they do, though, is try to introduce doubt. One of the issues that they constantly are raising is you don't have definitive, you don't have definitive proof that in 60 years, for example, children might develop cancer from exposure to bisphenol A, right. You don't have the long term studies that we think are really essential.

But you introduce doubt about the data and then you find other people to introduce studies that raise questions about it. So you introduce, it's really the production of uncertainty. Produce uncertainty about the issue and we as an industry have no obligation to prevent disease. And it's completely antithetical to everything that public health could, public health's supposed to be about preventing disease and you always work on imperfect data. You never have the long term 60-year study that tells you you're going to have damage 60 years from now. So that's one of the tactics, it's just to keep saying there's a question, there's a question.

GERALD MARKOWITZ: And to attack people like Herbert Needleman, and to create the kind of uncertainty that gives parents pause. Should I act or should I not act? And that is probably the, as David says, the most dangerous thing they do.

BILL MOYERS: But it's consistent with what you have learned as historians this industry and others have done over the years to whistleblowers, to truth tellers, to neutral scientists and journalists who are just simply trying to report what the public should know.

GERALD MARKOWITZ: But if you can't contest the message then you go after the messenger. But think about all the younger academics who are deciding what they're going to study, what they're going to work on. And for those people it is a real decision. Are they going to go up against powerful industries or are they going to do something safe? And our fear is that more and more younger scholars and younger scientists will end up doing something safe rather than something that could really make a difference in the public arena.

BILL MOYERS: Both of you were witnesses in that big case in Rhode Island. Can you summarize that and what happened?

GERALD MARKOWITZ: Well, this was the longest civil trial in Rhode Island history, or at least up to that point. And it was a remarkable effort by the attorney general of the state of Rhode Island to prevent future damages for lead’s harm to the children of Rhode Island. It was really a public health lawsuit, an amazing public health lawsuit.

BILL MOYERS: As I understand it Senator Whitehouse whom I have met had this problem before he was a senator. He had inadvertently exposed his own children to lead when he renovated his house. And then he became attorney general and brought this suit to try to hold the industry accountable.

GERALD MARKOWITZ: It took, unfortunately, his personal tragedy to get him to take this extraordinarily important action. And we were asked to testify in that case to provide the historical evidence of what the lead industry knew about the dangers and what did they do with that knowledge, which basically was to deny that there was a problem, to say that this was a public relations problem for them rather than a public health problem.

Our documents showed that they had been, they'd known about what they were creating, they'd known that children would be poisoned, they were discussing children dying as early as the 1920s and '30s, and yet they had created this huge environmental mess of millions and millions of pounds on the walls of Rhode Island, all of which was waiting to poison future generations.

DAVID ROSNER: And that they had done nothing about it, they continued to market. And that really, I think, enraged the jury.

GERALD MARKOWITZ And we were thrilled, just thrilled when at the end of this trial the jury came back and for the first time in lead industry lawsuits they held three lead companies responsible for cleaning up the mess, in the form of lead paint on the walls of houses throughout Rhode Island.

BILL MOYERS: So the jury said the industry has to clean up and pay for it?


BILL MOYERS: For the first time?


DAVID ROSNER: This was the high point of our professional careers, the idea that we could use history and we could use the legal system really prevent disease for the future, not just pay back for the damages already done that were irreversible to children, but to actually prevent future generations. This was a suit that actually was going to demand somewhere between $1 billion and $4 billion from the companies to clean up the mess they had created. The low point of our lives, our professional lives, came two years later when the Supreme Court in Rhode Island overturned the decision.

BILL MOYERS: And what was the basis for them taking it back?

GERALD MARKOWITZ: Basically, they said that the lawsuit was filed under the wrong law, that it was filed under public nuisance law rather than under liability law.

DAVID ROSNER: What's interesting now is that there's another suit coming up in California. And there was fear that the California suit would not go forward because they thought the precedent of the Rhode Island Supreme Court denying the legitimacy of the suit would undermine that case. The Court in California rejected the arguments of the Supreme Court in Rhode Island. The Supreme Court of Rhode Island had said this can't go under, there is no standing in future generations to get damages from these companies because they haven't been damaged yet. Until the kids are damaged you can't actually sue. And California has said that absolutely, public health law is all based upon preventing disease. All regulations are in order to prevent future damage, therefore it can go forward in California. So we're quite excited because in June this court is, this case is going to be heard by a California jury.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me about the Baltimore case that you write about.

DAVID ROSNER: In the 1980s, researchers at Hopkins wanted to find a way of remedying the conditions of Baltimore's housing, which lead was all over the place. And they were trying to find a way of doing it cheaply. So what they did is they set up three kinds of housing, one of which has been renovated to $1,650 worth of renovation, another to $3,500 and the last to $7,000 worth of renovation.

And then they recruited mothers, young mothers with children between the ages of six months to five years to live in these different houses, knowing that each house had lead exposures, but that if they could find which was the cheapest and which was the most effective way of lowering the blood lead level, not actually eliminating lead but lowering it a little bit.

GERALD MARKOWITZ: And perhaps the most troubling part of the experiment was that we've seen the consent forms and the consent forms do not tell parents that living in these homes may cause their children to be lead poisoned.

And as a result they ended up exposing 100 kids to less than fully abated homes expecting that most of those blood lead levels of those children would go down. And in fact, for most of the children their blood lead levels did go down. But some of the children, their blood lead levels went up.

DAVID ROSNER: What the court says is they were using children as human guinea pigs, as canaries in the mine so to speak, they were using them to measure the effectiveness of each one of their methods of abating lead. You know, this is young women, single mothers by and large with children, young children. And--

GERALD MARKOWITZ: Overwhelmingly African American.

DAVID ROSNER: And this is the, one of the most prestigious medical institutions in the country, Johns Hopkins.

BILL MOYERS: Weren't they trying to figure out how little could be spent to protect children in the short term? And wasn't that the wrong question altogether, don’t we need to solve these problem for the long run?

GERALD MARKOWITZ: Absolutely. And the lead researchers understood that the only way to solve the problem of lead poisoning in children was to get rid of all the lead from the walls. But they didn't think that there would be the political will to do that.

BILL MOYERS: Why don't we have that political will?

GERALD MARKOWITZ: Basically the industry has bought that political system.

DAVID ROSNER: For the past 40 years really we've been living under this set of assumptions about the scarcity in our society, how we can't afford anything and how government can't do anything. Government is the problem, not the answer. That's diametrically opposed to virtually all principles of course of public health which sees government as something that really could do something good. And but we've been taught over and over again that it's too expensive and government is the problem. And therefore we're incapacitated.

BILL MOYERS: With millions, billions of dollars at stake in profits aren't they following a kind of logic of capitalism?

GERALD MARKOWITZ: They absolutely are following the logic of capitalism. But we are all research subjects in a grand experiment where we are being exposed to literally thousands of chemicals that we have no data about. And do we want to know in ten, 20, 30 years that these are going to be either making us gravely ill or killing us?

Do we want our grandchildren to be exposed to this toxic soup of chemicals and only to find out when they're in their 30s and 40s that this is endangering their lives? And there really is a way that we can handle that problem. There is legislation in Congress now, the “Safe Chemicals Act,” which would require the EPA to test all existing and, existing chemicals and the 700 chemicals that are introduced every year and to not allow those that are dangerous to continue.

BILL MOYERS: But Jerry, you know that, as you write in here about the politics of science, that the industry went to Congress in 2005 and got fracking, even before it had come to full blossom, got fracking exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act. And you think, and you have hope for any kind of legislation such as you just described?

GERALD MARKOWITZ: Well, I have hope that there were actually 29 senators who were willing to cosponsor this piece of legislation, but no, I don't have hope that it's going to pass. I think only if environmental groups all around the country, and there are hundreds of environmental groups around the country, really mobilize a mass movement to demand that Congress protect our health, we really care about our health, but we are not doing the political mobilizing that is necessary in order to put that caring about health into legislative action.

BILL MOYERS: So how is the politics of science affecting the fate of America's children?

GERALD MARKOWITZ: You know, in our lifetime we have seen the abandonment of the commitment to try to help those who are most vulnerable in our society. And instead of that commitment today we ask how much does it cost. And by that we mean how many dollars does it cost. We don't ask what does it cost in terms of the health of our children, what does it cost in terms of the futures of our children and of our society.


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