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14th November
2003

First Published in The New York Sun, November 14, 2003

By Andrew Wolf

Faced with the highest taxes in the country, a crime rate that is showing signs of creeping up again, and staggering unemployment in sections of the city that rivals Depression-era levels, the City Council has decided to tackle a problem that already seems to have solved itself: childhood lead poisoning.They are about to pass a bill that, besides being totally unnecessary, will cost city government and private industry tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of dollars. 

    Lead poisoning is well known to cause brain damage and other medical problems, but the question really is “What constitutes lead poisoning?” When measured on a consistent, uniform scale, “lead poisoning” rates have dramatically plummeted over the past 30 years, and with good reason. 
    The introduction of lead in the environment has been severely curtailed by regulation. The major source of environmental contamination was leaded gasoline, now banned in America for a quarter of a century. Lead paint is no longer manufactured, and lead solder is no longer used in tin cans. 

    Therefore, it is not surprising that the numbers of children afflicted by lead poisoning has dramatically dropped. Good news? Not for those in the growing industry that surrounds the culture of victimization. For the trial lawyers, for the environmental activists, for the “expert” witnesses, this is a disaster. 

    To put this into perspective, consider these statistical facts: Before 1970, 60 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood was considered the “level of concern,” the point at which medical and environmental intervention kicked in. In that year in New York City, 2,649 children were identified as falling within this category. 

    In 2000, despite regulations that vastly increased the likelihood that a child would be tested at all, and the availability of more advanced testing procedures, only five, yes, just five children were reported at that level. This hardly sounds like a crisis to me, but a triumph of public policy. So what’s an activist to do? Keep lowering the bar. 

    In 1970, the threshold was dropped to 40, later to 25 (which remains the internationally recognized standard), and finally, in 1991, the Centers for Disease Control dropped the “level of concern” to 10, a level that was probably present in the blood of nearly every man woman and child in New York City during the 1950s and 1960s. 

    Not surprisingly, the number of New York City children identified as meeting that threshold in 2000 was 6,231. That sounds a lot more alarming than five. However, considering that there are about 2 million children living in the city, this is a rate of less than one-third of 1%, down in 30 years from nearly 100%. And that rate keeps declining. 

    In 1995, 19,232 children fell into this category, which means that even at this low level, the numbers fell by more than two-thirds in just five years. Because there is virtually no new lead being introduced into the environment, these are figures that have nowhere to go but down. 

    It is remarkable that the activists in their press releases and other materials characterize children at this low level to be “lead poisoned.” That is an outrageous exaggeration that scares parents and misleads the public. However, the City Council and much of the press keep buying into this fraud. 

    However, just in case they wise up, the activists have a backup plan. Dr. John F. Rosen, the director of the Division of Environmental Sciences at Montefiore Medical Center, who chaired the 1991 CDC panel responsible for lowering the threshold to 10, now wants to cut the level down to six. 

    Dr. Rosen is seemingly as likely to be found in the witness chair giving “expert” testimony for significant fees as he is treating the few actually afflicted individuals. This has upset some of his colleagues. 

    One of them, Dr. Holly Ruff, actually challenged Dr. Rosen in a scholarly journal. Questioning Dr. Rosen’s position that links low blood lead levels to brain damage, Dr. Ruff cautions using “generalizations from the results of group data.”While children with elevated lead levels may have lower IQ scores, that data could result from any number of factors that are similarly linked. 

    One well-regarded researcher, Dr. Stuart J. Pocock, writing in the British Journal of Medicine, goes so far as to suggest “reverse causality.” In other words, children who are entertained by peeling the paint off the wall and eating it may not be too bright to begin with. And just in case you think that there is a bottom limit, Dr. Herbert Needleman, a psychiatrist with the University of Pittsburgh and a well-known anti-lead activist, asserts that “science strongly suggests that there’s no threshold for safety.” In other words, can a zero limit be far behind? 

    The proposed legislation, which is now virtually sure to pass with a veto-proof margin, the cost of solving this largely phantom “problem” falls on you and me, the taxpayers. Since the Citizens Budget Commission has certified the long-held suspicion that we are the most highly taxed city in the nation, this is of no small import. 

    It would not surprise me if our “hard-headed businessman-mayor” caves in to cowardice and signs the council measure amid much fanfare about how he is “protecting” poor children. The costs will also fall on the most hated group of New Yorkers of all: property owners. The same folks who wring their hands over the lack of “affordable” housing in the city are intent on destroying every incentive there is for anyone to build or acquire residential property. If the council would do its homework and ascertain the truth about this issue, it could abandon this silly crusade and turn its attention to the real problems our city faces.

© 2003 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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