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9th July

First Published in The New York Sun,  July 9, 2002
By Andrew Wolf

Readers be warned: This column may not be totally cogent or accurate. You see, I have recently been informed by the New York Public Interest Research Group, better known as NYPIRG, that I must be suffering the effects of childhood lead poisoning. But then, chances are that you too are suffering from this same affliction, so presumably you won’t be able to tell the difference.

If you are a child of the 1970s or any earlier decade, more likely than not you had levels of lead in your bloodstream that today could win you six or seven figure legal settlements.
Those of us who grew up in New York during the city’s golden age of the 1950s didn’t know how dangerous our lives were. We played in the streets, breathing in the lead-filled exhaust of the leaded gas-guzzling autos, and had a lot more lead in our system than those considered “lead poisoned” today. Every time we picked up our “spaldeens” to play stickball, we transferred lead from the street to our hands, and later to our mouths. We managed to do better on our SATs than pupils today.

What we didn’t have, however, was a legal system that so easily rewarded fictional ills. Despite popular mythology, there is no linkage between diminished I.Q. and the low levels of lead in the blood that Nypirg tells us constitute “lead poisoning.” Nypirg is the leading advocate for toughening up the existing law, and issued a study last month purporting to show that lead poisoning is a still a serious health risk for children in New York City.

Lead is again at issue, since the new City Council is pressing to again strengthen the city’s already ridiculous lead paint laws. Peter Vallone, then speaker of the Council, brokered the current law in the late 1990s. But the average level of lead in children’s blood was already low and continues to decline. Why do we need to fix a problem that is fixing itself?

The answer lies with trial lawyers. They have a convenient and hated bogeyman in landlords, a group that is guaranteed never to get any sympathy. They have newly minted “victims” courtesy of “experts” who keep lowering the standards for what constitutes lead poisoning. And they are paid handsomely for protecting the little guy.

In the late nineties, the newspaper I publish, the Riverdale Review, led the effort to rezone and restructure the troubled middle school in Riverdale. To achieve this, a new school building needed to be constructed in an adjoining community. That effort was opposed by the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, an affiliate of the left wing group ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, which is perhaps best known for its opposition to the Edison charter schools.

When a slate of candidates in favor of the new school swept the 1999 Community School Board Election, the opponents were left with no choice but to try to derail the new school by playing what has all-toooften become their final card, bogus environmental claims.

In November of 1999, they managed to convince Gabe Pressman of Channel Four that the site was contaminated with lead and other toxic substances. Their “proof” was a lead wipe test conducted by what they claimed was an “independent” lab.

But both the client and the technician were identified on the lab report as one Lydia Saltzman. A quick search on the Internet revealed that she was the head of a group known as Parents Against Lead in Schools. The activist conducted the test and generated results that were never even remotely replicated by any other technician.

Immediately getting involved in the controversy was the most familiar figure in the “anti-lead” movement, Dr. John Rosen of Montefiore Hospital.

Before 1970, the level of lead in the blood with which a person was considered contaminated was 60 micrograms a deciliter. This was reduced first to 40, then 30, 25, and finally 10 µg/dL in 1991, when Dr. Rosen chaired the Center for Disease Control’s lead advisory committee. Dr. Rosen advocates further reducing the standard to 6 µg/dL.The international standard is 25 µg/dL.

By Dr. Rosen’s standards, 99% of the population in the 1950’s was lead poisoned. There is no hard evidence that links today’s low “lead poisoning” thresholds with diminished I.Q. scores.

Dr. Claire B. Ernhart, a professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University at Cleveland, Ohio, has been particularly critical of Dr. Rosen. In 1999, she said “Rosen is an absolutist who travels around the country wreaking havoc and scaring the daylights out of people for no good reason. There are alarming inconsistencies in his work and I caution everyone about his conclusions.”

Professor Ernhart noted that there has been a remarkable reduction in blood lead levels over the past quarter century, yet Dr. Rosen and others have kept the problem alive by continuously advocating for lower and lower threshold levels.

“There is no conclusive evidence that such low levels of lead have any significant effect on scores on I.Q. tests. So many factors can adversely affect levels of I.Q.” She cites a study by Dr. Stuart J. Pocock, heading a multinational team, published in 1994 in the British Journal of Medicine. Dr. Pocock, a world-renowned medical statistician, concluded that “while low level lead exposure may cause a small I.Q. deficit, other explanations need considering.”

In particular, he cites “selection biases” in studies that may show such a correlation, and the ignoring of “confounders,” other criteria that may be affecting the results. He also cites the possibility of “reverse causality” in which “children of lower I.Q. adopt behaviour which makes them more prone to lead uptake.” In other words, maybe children who feel the compulsion to chip away at a wall to eat the paint aren’t all that bright to begin with.

Professor Ernhart sees Dr. Rosen’s advocacy of creating low lead thresholds as “good for business,” noting that Dr. Rosen and others frequently appear — throughout the country — as expert witnesses in civil damage suits. My efforts to contact Dr. Rosen were unsuccessful, though I did speak with him several times when writing on these issues in 1999 for the Riverdale Review. His opinions on the dangers of lead are well documented.

Dr. Rosen has been the leading advocate of the position that moderately high levels of lead in the blood inexorably lead to a loss of intelligence as measured by I.Q. tests, and other types of mental measurements. He frequently testifies in court cases asserting a definitive and even quantifiable linkage between even moderately high levels of lead poisoning and mental problems on an individual basis. In many of these cases, plaintiffs purport that children with blood lead levels in the midteens, the average as recently as the 1970s, have lost I.Q. points. They seek and sometimes win huge judgments.

Dr. Rosen’s colleague at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (affiliated with Montefiore Hospital), Dr. Holly Ruff, who once collaborated with Dr. Rosen, has criticized the use of “generalizations from the results of group data” in the context of legal cases, the formulation of public policy, and the counseling of parents whose children may have been exposed to lead.

Dr. Ruff points out that factors other than lead also account for variations in I.Q. scores of many of the children who have moderately elevated levels of lead in their blood.These factors include socioeconomic status, parental I.Q., nutrition, emotional security, intellectual stimulation, and dozens of others.

When the City Council takes up this issue once again, I urge it to try a new and novel approach, a search for the truth. That is unless they, like the rest of us, are simply not smart enough. After all, according to Nypirg, most of them spent a good part of their youth with enough lead in their blood to qualify them for a big, fat settlement.

© 2002 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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