Herb Needleman knew about the harm lead causes and he warned the world for three decades crusading for more stringent lead safety standards and is credited for lowering U.S. lead levels.
Before his work, it was believed lead poisoning was a short-term problem easily treated by removing the source of lead from the child and administering a high calcium diet along with liberal doses of cod liver oil! If they recovered from the initial bout of brain swelling physicians believed the children would be fine.
Needleman showed the effects could be long lasting even if a child had no overt lead poisoning symptoms and could cause devastating neurological harm in children even with low-level lead poisoning could decrease IQ and increased behavioral problems.
Blood lead levels only told him current lead exposure. Needleman discovered baby teeth could be used as a measurement for lead for much longer periods of time. and published his results in 1972.
Since lead and calcium are similar lead can mess with cellular processes that rely on calcium. "Neurons use calcium to send messages, which is one of the reasons the nervous system receives the brunt of lead’s toxic effects. The presence of lead hijacks the brain’s calcium pathways, causing decreased signals from some neurons, while increasing signals in others." This can alter brain development as seen in children with behavioral and neurological issues.
Needleman found the greater a child’s exposure to lead, the greater their neurological damage but that even lower levels of lead caused neurological damage.
He and another researcher, Phillip Landrigan pushed for stronger rules to lower acceptable blood lead levels and to eliminate lead from gasoline and paint the largest contributors to lead poisoning in children. Lead in paint was banned by EPA in 1978.
Leaded gasoline producers did their own research to justify its safety in their product. Lead lobbyists went to Congress and the EPA to protect their industry from what they saw as a public relations problem not a public health crisis by trying to destroy Needleman's research and his reputation as a scientist.
He survived and Needleman became a hero to public and environmental health scientists. His work and for standing up to industry has saved thousands of lives and improved the health of countless others.
I never got to meet him, but after reading about him in the mid 90's I got his number from "information" and called him on the phone to alert him about the high numbers of children in Ottawa County that were lead poisoned.
He took the time to listen.
It was his method of testing baby teeth to determine a child's body burden of lead inspired us to collect baby teeth and teeth from adult residents here and send them to the Harvard School of Public Health. Those results got Harvard involved with research at Tar Creek with the children born in this county and the health effects of multiple metals exposure.
It is easy to worry about what to fix for dinner or how to keep the kids occupied during the summer and I hate to nudge any reader to break out and do something different, but there is an opportunity June 20 and July 20 for anyone interested to take LEAD Agency's Lay Health Advisor Training and learn about lead poisoning and more importantly how to prevent it.
Living near a superfund site like Tar Creek with lead listed as the contaminate of concern, it will remain necessary for our residents to know how to protect our children from exposure for the duration of the cleanup. (For more information or to sign up for the free training call our office at 918-542-9399.)
“Lead is the archetypal poison. It stays in the body for years, and even a small amount can become significant over a long time and we know now there is no such thing as a short-term exposure to lead," says Nick Newman, a pediatrician at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital.
Landrigan explains now that we know all this there has not been the political will to fix the problem and remove lead from our environment once and for all. For us we need funding to continue the cleanup of the Tar Creek Superfund and other superfund sites around the country. There needs to be a system-wide survey of lead pipes and replacement begun and every residence with lead paint needs to have the assistance to have it removed safely throughout our country.
These kind of projects will take a groundswell of interest to create the political will to fix these problems. “Lead poisoning is totally preventable. We can take it out of the environment and just stop using it. There are 500,000 kids with elevated blood lead levels—it doesn’t need to be that way. These kids are victims of a society willing to let its least powerful members suffer the effects of lead,” Gerald Markowitz says.
“We still have a long way to go to eliminate the threat, but we wouldn’t have made it this far without Needleman,” said David Bellinger, a researcher at Tar Creek with our MATCH Project children.
Respectfully Submitted ~ Rebecca Jim
— Rebecca Jim is executive director of the LEAD Agency