First Published in The New York Sun, July 9, 2003
By Andrew Wolf
Ayear ago,I wrote a column attempting to dispel the myth that lead poisoning as currently defined poses a public health threat.In light of the July 1 court decision striking down Local Law 38,and the moronic zeal of the current City Council to pass a Draconian replacement, clearly it’s time to make another attempt.Even at the low threshold that now defines poisoning, the number of afflicted children is plummeting. The time has come to declare victory and move on.Unfortunately,pandering politicos serving as the handmaidens of trial lawyers keep trying to lower the standards by which we determine who is lead poisoned.
Several years ago I learned more about lead poisoning than I ever wanted to know. I was leading an initiative to build a new middle school in the Marble Hill community. A building site between two existing schools there,Kennedy High School and P.S. 37,had already been chosen,when the initiative ran into opposition from a small group of activists desperate to stop any project that was seen to benefit a middle-class community like Riverdale.There are anti-lead activists who brag that they can find lead anywhere, and one was dispatched to P.S. 37 to do so.
The leader of a paper organization called Parents Against Lead in Schools, Lydia Saltzman, climbed up on a ladder and wiped a window ledge on a stairwell 12 feet above the landing that hadn’t been cleaned in the 5 years since the school had opened. Traces of lead dust were found.P.S.37 was closed for two days as an army of technicians from the old Board of Education and the Health Department descended. Needless to say,Ms.Saltzman’s findings were not even remotely replicated either inside or outside of the building.
After months of hearings, hundreds of needless blood tests,an environmental impact study, and about a million wasted dollars, the site was found to be perfectly safe and construction began.The school is now nearing completion.
But what I learned along the way is that lead poisoning is for the most part no longer a threat to children. The only reason we are hearing court cases, debating legislation and hearing the cries of special interest groups is to preserve the sense of crisis that leads to huge settlements in what are mostly ludicrous court cases.
Here’s the bottom line. As groups like NYPIRG, the Sierra Club and City Council members charge that thousands of children are lead poisoned,they are deceiving a gullible public.The truth is that most of these children, with hardly more than 10 micrograms of lead a deciliter of blood, have a small fraction of the lead levels that children growing up in the 1940s,1950s,1960s,and 1970s had on average.
In fact, by today’s standards, it is likely that nearly every man, woman and child living in New York City in the 1950s was lead poisoned. Incredibly, they actually scored better on IQ and SAT tests than children today, who have virtually lead-free blood coursing through their veins.
The reason for the decline in lead levels in the blood has to do mostly with the abandonment of leaded gasoline a quarter century ago. Since that time, lead levels have plunged. But so has the bottom line defining lead poisoning. First the threshold was dropped in 1970 from 60 mg/dl to 40 mg/dl, and then to 25 mg/dl.That is the number that is used elsewhere in the world.
In the early 1990s the rate was dropped again, to 10 mg/dl,at the behest of activist John Rosen, the doctor who mixes his science with heavy doses of politics. Dr. Rosen travels from city to city appearing in court as an “expert witness”to secure lottery-like settlements for children with levels that would have been considered laughingly low 50 years ago.
Under the law recently struck down,the number of “afflicted”children dropped by over 75% since 1995. But Dr. Rosen has a plan. He has been advocating lowering the threshold once again — this time to 6 mg/dl, or one tenth of what it was 33 years ago.Presumably,once business sours at 6 mg/dl, it will be time to lower the bar once again.
You would have been hard pressed to find anyone with a level as low as 6 mg/dl in 1960. By this standard, presumably the entire City Council was lead poisoned and thus brain damaged. Maybe that explains why they have so easily tossed away the concepts of logic and common sense.
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