Kai Wright: Hey long time no talk, I'm Kai Wright, host of season one of There Goes the Neighborhood and I need to tell you I have personally met so many There Goes the Neighborhood listeners all over the country and ya'll have been demanding that we continue this show, demanding it. Well, message received, but here's what we've done, we created a whole new show, it's called The Stakes and that's where we're going to continue reporting on gentrification, the state of our neighborhoods and all of that.
On The Stakes, we're going to apply the same approach to a wider range of social justice issues. We're going to think about how we feed and clothe ourselves, how we take care of our sick and educate our kids, make art and all of it. Like gentrification, none of it is half instance, it's all by design and if we understand that, maybe we can design it better. Please, please, please, go over to The Stakes right now and hit 'Subscribe'. You can also sign up for our newsletter at thestakespodcast.org.
I'm going to play the whole first episode for you right now. It's all about how one industry put poison into our homes for decades knowingly and how communities are trying to hold that industry accountable.
I'm Kai Wright, welcome to The Stakes. In this episode 'The Little Dutch Boy and Old Man Gloom'.
Christopher Werth: Kai Wright.
Kai Wright: Christopher Worth.
Christopher Werth: I have a question for you.
Kai Wright: Shoot.
Christopher Werth: When I say, "Dutch Boy" do you know who the little Dutch Boy character is?
Kai Wright: Literally who he is?
Christopher Werth: Well, could you describe him?
Kai Wright: It's like a little white baby, I think.
Christopher Werth: It's not a white baby.
Kai Wright: No it's not?
Christopher Werth: No, it's not a white baby.
Kai Wright: In my mind it's a little white baby.
Christopher Werth: It's a little white kid, blonde hair, blue overalls, blue cap, he's wearing clogs.
Kai Wright: It's a white baby.
Christopher Werth: He's Dutch, but he's not a baby, he's-
Kai Wright: He's a kid.
Christopher Werth: -seven, eight years old or something and he's always carrying around a bucket of paint and a paint brush. If you go to the hardware store now and you walk by a can of Dutch Boy paint, you're going to see this little Dutch Boy character. It's just a little logo on the can of paint, but what I didn't know is that in the early part of the 20th century, like 20s, 30s, the company that made Dutch Boy Paint, it was called the National Lead Company.
Kai Wright: A lead Company was making paint.
Christopher Werth: Yes, and it made a very active decision to use this Dutch Boy character much more overtly, to actually advertise to kids.
Kai Wright: To sell the paint to kids.
Christopher Werth: To advertise lead paint to kids as a way to get to their parents. Which given what we know about lead paint today, it sounds absolutely disastrous. lead causes brain damage, it causes lower IQ, hyperactivity, it is really harmful to young developing brains, but the fact of the matter is, human beings have known lead is dangerous for a really long time. The Greeks knew this, Benjamin Franklin wrote about the dangers of lead, people actually had a very natural fear of it and yet lead still ended up in so many every day consumer products.
As a result, lead poisoning is arguably the longest running public health epidemic in American history. This Dutch Boy character is a clue as to how that happened, how the lead paint industry convinced us to ignore these health risks and push this poison into our homes, all in the name of profit.
Kai Wright: Our question in this episode is why hasn't this industry been held accountable and how are kids still getting poisoned? That's what's at stake.
Christopher Werth: Kai, I want to introduce you to some people. I went out to record an interview, not too long ago, it was in the far reaches of New York City. Hey, it's Christopher from the WNYC. When I got there, three storey walk up, old building, I go up this rickety wooden staircase and at the top, I meet this family. Hello?
Christopher Werth: Hey. This mother and her four very beautiful children. All under the age of five, all in this small very, very sparsely furnished three bedroom apartment.
Kai Wright: We're where in New York City now?
Christopher Werth: That's the thing, I can't tell you where we are or who these people are. This woman, she's a victim of domestic abuse, she's hiding from the father of these kids, so she's in this program that's placed her in this apartment.
Kai Wright: Right.
Christopher Werth: This place , well, it's not particularly fancy, it's a refuge for her and these kids.
Kai Wright: It's her safe space.
Christopher Werth: It's her safe space. Then she tells me this story about how she lived there for a few months, maybe half of a year and she started to notice something about the kids.
Mother: After a while I keep seeing them with this white stuff on their mouth, I'm like-
Christopher Werth: It was like this white powder.
Mother: -"What's going on?"
Christopher Werth: She asked one of her older daughters, "What is this? What's on your mouth?" The little girl tells her--
Mother: "Oh, mommy, the paint from the wall?" I'm like, "Why you're eating the paint from the wall? That's not nice, that's nasty."
Kai Wright: Oh God. Then what did she do about it?
Christopher Werth: At first she didn't immediately realize this is a problem, but then--
Mother: I took them to the doctor to get their physical done for school and the doctor called me back with the results saying that my--
Christopher Werth: These kids have been exposed to a lot of lead.
Mother: The kids had lead poison.
Christopher Werth: What were the kid's levels?
Mother: My older daughter was 15 and the other older one was 16.
Kai Wright: Those sound like big numbers, but I don't-- How much are you supposed to have in your blood?
Christopher Werth: The centers for disease control says that no level of lead is safe. It recommends health departments to take action if a child tests above five, so these kids are three times that number. In New York City, if your kid tests at 15, 16, the health department knocks on your door within a couple of days to conduct an inspection.
Mother: They came and they checked the windows and stuff like that and they found the lead.
Christopher Werth: They found lead all over the place, when they go in, they stamp it with these red letters that say "Lead Paint" and it was on the door frames, it was on the windows. I went into one of the kids bedrooms and you could actually see bite marks on the windowsill and all of this chipping paint.
Child: I got water.
Christopher Werth: Oh you did? Were you thirsty? One of the four year old girls was saying, "We eat the windowsill."
Child 2: I bite in the window.
Christopher Werth: Why have you been biting it?
Child 2: I bite in it.
Christopher Werth: Don't bite the window, sweetie, don't bite the window.
Kai Wright: Wait, what makes kids want to eat paint in the first place?
Christopher Werth: Here's one of the cruelest parts of this lead situation is that the lead that went into paint has a very sweet taste, so they-
Kai Wright: That is horrific.
Christopher Werth: -get a taste of it and they want a little more, and they want a little more, so they keep eating it.
Kai Wright: What can she expect to happen as a consequence?
Christopher Werth: Well, lead is a really potent neurotoxin, it causes brain damage. Her landlord was supposed to fix to this problem, at least that's what the city requires, but at the time I met this family, the landlord, he was not getting this work done. Are you worried?
Mother: Yes, of course I'm worried because I read it up and I see a lot of stuff that you can get affected off of it [unintelligible 00:08:02] They're still going to the wall, I don't know what to do to stop them from going to the paint.
Kai Wright: Christopher, I followed the story about lead in the water in Flint of course, but if I'm honest, I thought lead paint was a thing in the past.
Christopher Werth: Yes, lead paint was banned in this country 40 years ago, but a lot of that old paint is still with us and that's what poisons the most kids. It is still haunting us and here's the thing, you start to dig into the past and you find that the lead industry knew full well this paint was dangerous.
Davis Rosner: Everyone knew about lead poisoning, this was not a secret.
Christopher Werth: I spoke with this guy named David Rosner, he's a public health historian at Columbia University. He says, "What the lead industry had to do was transform lead's reputation."
David Rosner: There's a concerted effort to make this a consumer item by generally advertising it as a helpful product, a modern helpful product.
Christopher Werth: The pitch was that this paint was so good, it will protect your home and make it safer. If you go to his office, he's got these massive filing cabinets, he has been looking at the history of lead poisoning for a really long time and he's collected all these historic material from the lead industry.
David Rosner: I wanted to show you a couple of these things.
Christopher Werth: He's got internal company memos that these companies were trading back and forth. He's got these manuals for how to mix this stuff, mix lead paint.
David Rosner: 100 pounds of lead heavy paste.
Christopher Werth: There's this one thing that really stuck out for him that he wanted to show me. Which was this kid's coloring book.
David Rosner: This is what I was telling you, this is how the Dutch Boy conquers Old Man Gloom.
Christopher Werth: This coloring book was published by the National lead Company in 1929 and on the cover is Dutch Boy, he's holding hands with these two little kids and the whole coloring book has this story in it. These kids they live in this really drab, really dingy apartment or house.
Kai Wright: No paint on the walls.
Christopher Werth: No paint on the walls, it's really gray. That home is personified by this character, Old Man Gloom.
David Rosner: He is dressed in old black 19th century clothes. He has a big top hat, has a long ugly beard, he's using a cane.
Christopher Werth: Lo and behold, as you turn the page, Dutch Boy comes along and he's carrying a can o0f paint, he's very colorful, he could be straight out of a Disney movie.
David Rosner: The children say, "Oh, could you invite him in? He looks like such a fun guy, maybe he'll make our gloomy life a little happier." He comes in and he teaches the kids how to paint their room, paint their furniture, their toys, their walls, everything. He shows how much fun it will be. For feeling blue, you're not to blame, come let me show you a new game, this famous Dutch Boy lead of mine can make this playroom fairly shine. Suddenly this room which was this kind of dingy, greenish gray becomes this bright playroom where everything shines. Old man Gloom says, "That had been undone by a Dutch Boy painted Dutch Boy lead."
Christopher Werth: Inside was a little coupon for a can of lead paint that read, "Give coupon to mom or dad."
David Rosner: Everybody thinks tobacco industry invented all this stuff, lead industry was putting out these ads aimed at children and youth. They have their version of Joe Camel, way before Joe Camel was invented.
Christopher Werth: This Joe Camel strategy worked. Dutch Boy would appear at parades and newspaper ads extolling the benefits of lead and people were convinced it was safe. In the period leading up to this coloring book, the lead paint industry was booming, pumping out around 160,000 tons of lead at its peak. Not just Dutch Boy, lead was cheap and it was plentiful. Sherwin Williams made lead paint, Benjamin Moore, and the real upside was that lead is opaque. The lead that went into paint was a fine white powder that created a solid durable surface. It just had to be mixed with a little linseed oil.
David Rosner: Each gallon of lead paint had about 16 pounds of lead in it, half the container was lead.
Christopher Werth: Because lead went in as a powder, it also comes off as an invisible dust that can cover pretty much everything, floors, window sills, children's toys. This is not just about kids who eat paint, lead dust enters the bloodstream very easily.
David Rosner: Children were coming down with seizures and going into comas and dying, because they were touching these walls, getting stuff on their hands and then putting the hands in their mouth.
Christopher Werth: It was also in this era that companies such as General Motors and Standard Oil began adding lead to gasoline to improve engine performance.
Speaker 7: That's why Apple gasoline brings out the full power and performance of your car. Next time you buy gasoline-
Christopher Werth: This introduced large quantities of lead to the air that everyone was breathing. According to the internal documents Rosner pieced together, people in the lead industry knew exactly what kind of effects all of this was having on people's health and they got away with it, he says, by going after the science. They went after pediatricians and researchers who were raising the alarm, they threatened them with lawsuits, but as the evidence mounted, as more and more kids were poisoned, The Lead Industry Association took another tack, they passed this off as a problem that only affected people of color.
David Rosner: They say this in their memos, the only people who are really victimized by it are Puerto Rican and Negro people and we can't do anything about that, unless we really rebuild the housing, that's not going to happen, or alternatively, and they say this, educate their parents not to let them eat lead, and how does one accomplish that task? They say. How can we ever educate them? This was an indication of the racism of the culture.
Carlita Rivera: This street right here was one of the most populated streets in East Harlem.
Christopher Werth: In New York City, Carlita Rivera witnessed that racism firsthand. In 1969, at just 15 years old, he joined the Young Lords, a Latino grassroots political organization. At a time when few public officials were willing to take on this problem, groups like the Young Lords and the Black Panther Party, they began knocking on doors with a team of medical students, testing kids in their neighborhoods.
Carlita Rivera: We would have literature ready to explain that we're testing because basically, because this system is trying to kill you.
Christopher Werth: Rivera remembers one child in particular, a little boy in a Puerto Rican family with very high lead levels.
Carlita Rivera: The kid resided on this block. If I'm not mistaken, he lived in this building right there.
Christopher Werth: Describe what he was like though.
Carlita Rivera: He was wobbly. He had this fainted look and we were concerned.
Christopher Werth: A couple days later, Rivera and a couple of other members, came to take him to the hospital.
Carlita Rivera: One of the medical students put on a suit and it was to set an impression to the people at the emergency room. You had to do that in those days, because basically, they didn't give a shit about poor people coming in and telling them that they were discovered to have some kind of poisoning.
Christopher Werth: You didn't think that he would get the proper treatment, if you took him to the hospital?
Carlita Rivera: No, we went there. They knew who the Young Lords. All the institutions were a little bit apprehensive about stepping on our toes, because we were young, and we were stupid and crazy. I got to tell you how we were, we were defiant. They didn't know how to deal with us.
Christopher Werth: They were actually acting as first responders.
Christopher Werth: Yes, but even this late in the game, the way that everyone thought about lead was very, very different from the way that we do now. People still thought of it as something that really only caused harm at high levels, but then, someone came along who would fundamentally change the way we think about what lead does to young developing brains.
Herbert Needleman: I was a pediatrician, practicing pediatrician, I made house calls.
Christopher Werth: This is Dr. Herbert Needleman.
Herbert Needleman: In my training at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, I treated my first case of lead poisoning, a very sick little Hispanic girl.
Christopher Werth: Needleman passed away in 2017, but he spoke about this case in an interview years ago, that shows his way of thinking. This kid was living in a house riddled with lead paint.
Herbert Needleman: I told the mother what I had been trained, that is if she was re-exposed, she was essentially doomed. I said, "You have to move out of that house." The mother said to me, "Where am I going to move? Any house that I can afford is no different than the house I live in." That shocked me and smartened me up.
Christopher Werth: He wondered, if it's killing kids, or nearly killing them at high doses, what about all those other children who aren't in the hospital, but live in the same houses, live in the same neighborhoods, how much lead is in their bodies?
Joshua Needleman: He was looking for what happens with lower doses of lead.
Christopher Werth: This is Herbert Needleman son, Joshua Needleman.
Joshua Needleman: What happens with children who are exposed to lead that was considered safe, what effects do they have? How can we measure that?
Christopher Werth: Answering that question was actually a really big challenge. There was really no easy way to find out how much a kid had accumulated over several years, but then one day around 1970, Needleman was sitting in his office in North Philadelphia, and something caught his attention.
Joshua Needleman: He said he could look out his window and see a schoolyard there.
Christopher Werth: It was recess, there were children playing outside. He thought, what if I were to go into that school and collect those kids baby teeth.
Kai Wright: Their baby teeth? Why their teeth?
Christopher Werth: What Needleman knew was that a lot of the lead that gets into our bodies gets locked up into our bones. Lead behaves a lot like calcium in that way, even though nothing else about it is anything like calcium, but essentially, lead acts as a imposter. It replaces calcium, not just in bones, but in our red blood cells, which obviously carry oxygen through our bodies and in our neurons, which allow our brains to function. That's what makes lead so destructive, but if it's in these kids bones, then it's also in their teeth.
Joshua Needleman: He realized that children in elementary school were losing their teeth and that the level of lead in their teeth were also reflected lead in their bone and reflected their exposure over time.
Christopher Werth: Needleman, he started to develop this pretty elaborate crazy medical study that would come to be known as the Philadelphia Tooth Fairy project. He had this network of dentists and teachers at a number of different schools and he'd swing by every week or so, he'd pick up a few new teeth, he had their parents consent. He'd note who the kid was and he'd ask the teachers, "What is this child like as a student?"
Irving Shapiro: There was some very strange incidents during this time, because we were offering the children money for their teeth.
Christopher Werth: Irving Shapiro was a colleague of Needleman's at the time, he's an expert on tooth formation. Needleman was offering a silver dollar for each tooth.
Irving Shapiro: I remember one day, a guy appeared in my lab, a very fierce looking individual, and he said, "I want money." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "I brought you the teeth." He had a handful of bloody teeth in his hands and he wanted money for each of those teeth that he brought in. I gave him the money. He scared me silly.
Kai Wright: Did they use those teeth?
Christopher Werth: No, no, they didn't, but in a few years time, they did manage to examine 760 teeth from first graders in Philadelphia, and of course, what they found, black students had much higher levels than white students. That's what you would expect, given everything I just described, but what was more surprising, and Shapiro says this, was that almost all of these kids, whether they were White or Black, suburban, or urban, most of them had been exposed to, what at the time even, were considered very, very high levels of lead from the time they were babies. This shocked a lot of people.
Herbert Needleman: What we discovered affected so many children, we were not talking about a few children, we were talking about a large number of children. When you play that out across the country, the number of kids were involved was sufficient to make people wake up and make the health authorities wake up to the fact that there was this devastating event that was taking place in our cities. In fact, no children were unaffected by it because lead was ubiquitous.
Kai Wright: Now that they know it's ubiquitous meaning now that they know that there's white kids being affected.
Christopher Werth: Exactly. As Needleman kept pursuing this question, he later went on to Harvard where he continued this research. He found that this exposure, even at levels that were considered miniscule, at the time, was causing real damage.
Herbert Needleman: We came to the conclusion that lead was a poison and there was no safe level of lead at all in the human body.
Kai Wright: What effect did this research have?
Christopher Werth: Lead paint was banned in 1978. It was also in the 1970s that the US began phasing lead out of gasoline. It wasn't all due to Needleman, but certainly, many of the people I've interviewed told me his research was essential in pushing those policies forward.
Kai Wright: He won.
Christopher Werth: Average lead levels in the United States have dropped more than 90% since the 1970s, but as we know, from those four little kids I told you about earlier, that doesn't include everyone.
Kai Wright: Coming up, how we missed our chance to solve this problem for good.
Christopher Werth: Kai, we went back to that mother and her kids who are dealing with all this lead paint.
Mother: Go in your bed, go in your bed. You too madam.
Christopher Werth: The landlord was supposed to have taken care of this problem within five days. I assumed that this problem was over and done with, but over two months since I first walked through her door, nothing has been done.
Mother: My kids are still picking the paint off the wall.
Christopher Werth: They're still doing it?
Mother: Yes. They're still eating it. I don't know what I should do, it's frustrating.
Christopher Werth: I can imagine. You can't keep them away from it.
Mother: Exactly, because it's in their room. You're sleeping at night, you don't know what they're doing in here. You wake up in the morning, you see paint all over the floor, like, "You all was eating the paint?" "Yes, Mommy." "Why?" "I don't know."
Kai Wright: Listening to her, Christopher, what is striking is that, here is a family that turned to the city, to the government looking for safety. We have failed her repeatedly, we put her in a facility at a house that had poison on the wall, and the poison is still there.
Christopher Werth: Yes, but this is how we've set this system up. We've essentially made a decision to use kids as canaries, and it's estimated there are over a million of them in this country. We wait until they're shown to have an elevated lead level and then, only then, do we decide to do anything about it. I think we need to ask ourselves, "Are we really okay with that?" After he proved in the 1970s, that lead was causing all this harm, almost immediately, Herbert Needleman started pushing public officials to take a more preventative approach. He really thought we could eradicate this for good.
Speaker 11: I'd like to now call forward to testify Dr. Herbert L. Needleman Professor of Psychiatry-
Christopher Werth: In 1991, he testified before a house committee hearing pushing this idea that if we were willing to spend the money, we could solve two problems, one, we could go in all these old homes and remove the lead paint and two, create jobs by training people in these neighborhoods to do that work.
Herbert Needleman: If you map where lead is piled up in super-abundance, and if you map where decent housing is in short supply and if you map where jobs are in short supply, the free maps are virtually identical.
Christopher Werth: This was an era of small government. In the end, he couldn't get it through, Needleman's vision was never realized.
Kai Wright: That's it, we're just screwed, that's where we're at.
Christopher Werth: Actually, I think we're at a very important moment in this history right now, because there's this different approach that seems to be gaining at least some traction.
Fidelma Fitzpatrick: Are you there?
Christopher Werth: I'm here. This is Fidelma Fitzpatrick, she's a lawyer at Motley Rice, which is a firm that was involved in a lot of the big cases against the tobacco industry and the asbestos industry. They've been going after the companies that created this problem in the first place.
Fidelma Fitzpatrick: It is mind-boggling to me, mind-boggling, that companies could look at the legacy of what they have done and not feel any twinge of corporate responsibility, not believe that they have to be good corporate citizens to solely become part of the solution. They don't want to solve the lead-poisoning crisis that exists in America, they don't care about it. That's where the law steps in.
Christopher Werth: In California, 10 cities and counties got together and sued several paint companies, including Sherwin Williams and the National Lead Company, which is now called NL Industries.
Speaker 12: Several local counties will be getting a huge payout after a landmark court decision today, which involves lead paint.
Speaker 13: A California judge ruled Sherwin Williams company, NL Industries, and Conagra grocery products knew lead paint was dangerous.
Christopher Werth: In building this case, Fitzpatrick used all of those historical documents that David Rosner has collected as proof that these companies really knew that they were selling dangerous products all along. It took 18 years, but in the fall of 2018, the lead paint companies were forced to pay $400 million, which will be used to fund lead abatement programs.
Fidelma Fitzpatrick: That's really what the California case was about, forcing accountability on a company that should have taken that mantle up voluntarily, but chose not to.
Kai Wright: Christopher, I don't know if that's exciting, or it's depressing, that we can't count on our government to help families like the one you met.
Christopher Werth: Not without a willingness to pay for it. Given that local governments already spend a lot of money dealing with lead paint, testing kids inspecting homes, Fitzpatrick says, cities all over the country really should be thinking about how to make these paint companies pay their share, either voluntarily or through the courts. It's interesting, if you zoom out from this lead issue, this idea has some pretty broad implications for how we hold corporations generally responsible for solving a lot of really expensive problems.
Kai Wright: This whole story is frankly, a stark reminder about just how justice works. It's not good enough to just say, "Let's stop doing this awful thing, let's ban the use of lead paint and then move on." You have to deal with the damage that's already been done. That means somebody has to be held accountable for it, to take some of the immense profit they made and fix what they broke. Only then can we actually move forward.
The Stakes is a production of WNYC studios in the newsroom of WNYC. This episode was reported by Christopher Werth. It was edited by Karen Frillman, who is also our executive producer, Casey Means is our technical director. Jim Schacter is vice president for news at WNYC. The Stakes team also includes.
Amanda: Amanda Aroncyzk.
Christopher Johnson: Christopher Johnson.
Jonna McKone: Jonna McKone.
Jessica Miller: Jessica Miller
Kaari Pitkin: Kaari Pitkin.
Veralyn Williams: Veralyn Williams.
Kai Wright: With help from.
Dennis Brown: Dennis Brown.
Jonathan [unintelligible 00:28:57]: [unintelligible 00:28:57]
Michelle Harris: Michelle Harris.
Kai Wright: -and all of you. Join us by signing up for our newsletter at thestakespodcast.org, you'll get all kinds of cool stuff like bonus content, the musings from me, but maybe most importantly, a chance to tell us about yourselves and help us find some stories. You can also hit me up on Twitter @Kai_Wright and chime in with the hashtag #TheStakes. Thanks for listening.
Speaker 22: Support for WNYC reporting on lead is provided by the New York State Health Foundation, improving the health of all New Yorkers especially the most vulnerable. Additional support for WNYC's health coverage is provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Jane and Gerald Catcher and The Catcher Family Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.