What does it take to change human behavior?
We have known that lead is poisonous ever since the Romans began sprinkling it on their food as a sweetener. Lead was used so extensively in Rome (for metal pots, wine urns, water pipes and plates) that some Romans began to suspect a connection between the metal and the general befuddlement that was cropping up among the aristocracy – the very people who could afford these urns and plates. But the culture’s habits never changed, and some historians believe that many among the Roman aristocracy suffered from lead poisoning. Julius Caesar, for example, managed to father only one child, even though he enjoyed women a much as he enjoyed wine. His successor, Caesar Augustus, was reported to be completely sterile. Some scholars go so far as to say that lead poisoning was a contributing factor to the fall of the Roman Empire.
Lead is a neurotoxin – it affects the human brain and cognitive development, as well as the reproductive system. Some of the kinds of neurological damage caused by lead are not reversible.
Specifically, it affects reading and reasoning abilities in children, and is also linked to hearing loss, speech delay, balance difficulties and violent tendencies. (1) According to Ruth Ann Norton, executive director of the Coalition to End Childhood Lead Poisoning, “There are kids who are disruptive, then there are ‘lead’ kids – very disruptive, very low levels of concentration.” Children with a lead concentration of less than 10 micrograms ( µ) per deciliter (dl = one tenth of a liter) of blood scored an average of 11.1 points lower than the mean on the Stanford-Binet IQ test. (2) Consistent and reproducible behavioral effects have been seen with blood levels as low as 7 µ/dl (micrograms of lead per tenth liter of blood), which is below the Federal standard of 10 µ/dl. Scientists are generally in agreement that there is no “safe” level of blood lead. Lead is a uniquely cumulative poison: the daily intake of lead is not as important a determinant of ultimate harm as is the duration of exposure and the total lead ingested over time.
A hundred years ago we were wearing lead right on our skin. I found this article funny and disturbing at the same time:
“Miss P. Belle Kessinger of Pennsylvania State College pulled a rat out of a warm, leaded-silk sack, noted that it had died of lead poisoning, and proceeded to Manhattan. There last week she told the American Home Economics Association that leaded silk garments seem to her potentially poisonous. Her report alarmed silk manufacturers who during the past decade have sold more than 100,000,000 yards of leaded silk without a single report of anyone’s being poisoned by their goods. Miss Kessinger’s report also embarrassed Professor Lawrence Turner Fairhall, Harvard chemist, who only two years ago said: ‘No absorption of lead occurs even under extreme conditions as a result of wearing this material in direct contact with the skin’. ”
This was published in Time magazine, in 1934. (Read the full article here. )
But lead has continued to be used in products, from dyestuffs made with lead (leading to lead poisoning in seamstresses at the turn of the century, who were in the habit of biting off their threads) (3), to lead in gasoline, which is widely credited for reduced IQ scores for all children born in industrialized countries between 1960 and 1980 (when lead in gasoline was banned). Read more about this here.
Lead is used in the textile industry in a variety of ways and under a variety of names:
- Lead acetate dyeing of textiles
- Lead chloride preparation of lead salts
- Lead molybdate pigments used in dyestuffs
- Lead nitrate mordant in dyeing; oxidizer in dyeing(4)
Fabrics sold in the United States, which are used to make our clothing, bedding and many other products which come into intimate contact with our bodies, are totally unregulated – except in terms of required labeling of percentage of fiber content and country of manufacture. There are NO laws which pertain to the chemicals used as dyestuffs, in processing, in printing, or as finishes applied to textiles, except those that come under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) of 1976, which is woefully inadequate in terms of addressing the chemicals used by industry. In fact, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) has announced that the 32 year old TSCA needs a complete overhaul (5), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was quick to agree! (6). Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, said on September 29, 2009 that the EPA lacks the tools it needs to protect people and the environment from dangerous chemicals.
And fabrics are treated with a wide range of substances that have been proven not to be good for us.
The United States has new legislation which lowers the amount of lead allowed in children’s products – and only children’s products. (This ignores the question of how lead in products used by pregnant women may affect their fetus. Research shows that as the brains of fetuses develop, lead exposure from the mother’s blood can result in significant learning disabilities.) The new Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) limits lead content in children’s products (to be phased in over three years) so that by August 14, 2011, lead content must be 100 ppm (parts per million) or less. However there was an outcry from manufacturers of children’s bedding and clothing, who argued that the testing for lead in their products did not make sense, because:
- it placed an unproductive burden on them, and
- it required their already safe products to undergo costly or unnecessary testing.
The Consumer Product Safety Commission voted to exempt textiles from the lead testing and certification requirements of the CPSIA.
So let me repeat here: the daily intake of lead is not as important a determinant of ultimate harm as is the duration of exposure and the total lead ingested over time. Children are uniquely susceptible to lead exposure over time, and neural damage occurring during the period from 1 to 3 years of age is not likely to be reversible. It’s also important to be aware that lead available from tested products would not be the only source of exposure in a child’s environment. Although substantial and very successful efforts have been made in the past twenty years to reduce environmental lead, children are still exposed to lead in products other than toys or fabrics. Even though it was eliminated from most gasoline in the United States starting in the 1970s, lead continues to be used in aviation and other specialty fuels. And from all those years of leaded gasoline, the stuff that came out of cars as fuel exhaust still pollutes soil along our roadways, becoming readily airborne and easily inhaled. All lead exposure is cumulative – so it’s important to eliminate any source that’s within our power to do so.
Are the manufacturers of children’s bedding and clothing correct? Are their products inherently safe? I thought I’d do some exploration to find out what information I could find out about chemicals used in our fabrics – and I’ll have the results next week.
(1) “ ‘Safe’ levels of lead still harm IQ”, Associated Press, 2001
(3) Thompson, William Gilmsn, The Occupational Diseases, 1914, Cornell University Library, p. 215