Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning

Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning

by Christian Warren
     
 

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During the twentieth century, lead poisoning killed thousands of workers and children in the United States. Thousands who survived lead poisoning were left physically crippled or were robbed of mental faculties and years of life. In Brush with Death, social historian Christian Warren offers the first comprehensive history of lead poisoning in the United

Overview

During the twentieth century, lead poisoning killed thousands of workers and children in the United States. Thousands who survived lead poisoning were left physically crippled or were robbed of mental faculties and years of life. In Brush with Death, social historian Christian Warren offers the first comprehensive history of lead poisoning in the United States. Focusing on lead paint and leaded gasoline, Warren distinguishes three primary modes of exposure—occupational, pediatric, and environmental. This threefold perspective permits a nuanced exploration of the regulatory mechanisms, medical technologies, and epidemiological tools that arose in response to lead poisoning.

Today, many children undergo aggressive "deleading" treatments when their blood-lead levels are well below the average blood-lead levels found in urban children in the 1950s. Warren links the repeated redefinition of lead poisoning to changing attitudes toward health, safety, and risk. The same changes that transformed the social construction of lead poisoning also transformed medicine and health care, giving rise to modern environmentalism and fundamentally altered jurisprudence.

Editorial Reviews

Health Affairs
Today, in city after city, landlords, tenants, and local governments each seek to hold one another responsible, both fiscally and legally, for ensuring that children are not poisoned in their own homes. Warren's book is critically important because he opens up this discussion, examining the roles and policies of public health officials and the lead industry itself in creating these deadly problems... As a study of one of the most significant occupational and environmental hazards in U.S. history and the policy debates it has engendered, Brush with Death deserves to be read by a wide audience.

— Gerald Markowitz

Journal of Social History
The strength of this book is the historical policy analysis and the impact this could have on current policy debate over environmental pollution.

— Carolyn Leonard Carson

Journal of the American Medical Association
For those interested in the history of medicine and particularly, public health and epidemiology, this is a must read.

New England Journal of Medicine
Fascinating and stimulating... Brush with Death examines in an interesting and parallel fashion the evolution of thought and actions regarding occupational exposure to lead, lead poisoning during childhood, and the main population-wide risk of exposure to airborne lead from automobiles.

— J. Routt Reigart, M.D.

Environmental History
A deft intertwining of discussion of industry's promotion of lead products as essential components of the modern lifestyle with consideration of the halting progress of medicine in clarifying the toxicology of lead and recognizing signs of lead poisoning in patients... It is a well-organized and readable account of the evolution of a major twentieth-century health threat and a valuable addition to environmental history.

— James Whorton

New Scientist
It is a chilling story, with morals for other countries too.

Veterinary and Human Toxicology
Not only is Brush with Death an excellent knowledge source for anyone interested in lead poisoning, it is also an informative historical account of a national industry gone bad. Want to get the lead out?—Here's documentation of all the motivation you need!

Bulletin of the History of Medicine
Thorough and convincing... Brush with Death should become a starting point for those interested in the postwar history of lead, environmental health, and pediatrics.

— Christopher Sellers

Journal of American History
In this highly engaging study, Christian Warren develops a broad critique of the lead industries, gas and paint manufacturers, and the scientific authorities who, for the most part, worked for them in the twentieth century.

— Jared N. Day

American Historical Review
A rich, nuanced discussion of Americans' use of lead and the resulting struggle with the harmful effects of this powerful poison that insidiously permeated American culture and Americans' bodies.

— Scott Hamilton Dewey

New England Journal of Medicine - J. Routt Reigart
Fascinating and stimulating... Brush with Death examines in an interesting and parallel fashion the evolution of thought and actions regarding occupational exposure to lead, lead poisoning during childhood, and the main population-wide risk of exposure to airborne lead from automobiles.

American Historical Review - Scott Hamilton Dewey
A rich, nuanced discussion of Americans' use of lead and the resulting struggle with the harmful effects of this powerful poison that insidiously permeated American culture and Americans' bodies.

Journal of American History - Jared N. Day
In this highly engaging study, Christian Warren develops a broad critique of the lead industries, gas and paint manufacturers, and the scientific authorities who, for the most part, worked for them in the twentieth century.

Bulletin of the History of Medicine - Christopher Sellers
Thorough and convincing... Brush with Death should become a starting point for those interested in the postwar history of lead, environmental health, and pediatrics.

Environmental History - James Whorton
A deft intertwining of discussion of industry's promotion of lead products as essential components of the modern lifestyle with consideration of the halting progress of medicine in clarifying the toxicology of lead and recognizing signs of lead poisoning in patients... It is a well-organized and readable account of the evolution of a major twentieth-century health threat and a valuable addition to environmental history.

Journal of Social History - Carolyn Leonard Carson
The strength of this book is the historical policy analysis and the impact this could have on current policy debate over environmental pollution.

Health Affairs - Gerald Markowitz
Today, in city after city, landlords, tenants, and local governments each seek to hold one another responsible, both fiscally and legally, for ensuring that children are not poisoned in their own homes. Warren's book is critically important because he opens up this discussion, examining the roles and policies of public health officials and the lead industry itself in creating these deadly problems... As a study of one of the most significant occupational and environmental hazards in U.S. history and the policy debates it has engendered, Brush with Death deserves to be read by a wide audience.

Journal of Toxicology - Ronald B. Mack
This fascinating book held me in its clutches from the Introduction and all the way through until the end.

3 Stars from Doody
Joel Kaufman
This is a social historian's account of the evolution in America's thinking about lead poisoning, and the forces driving lead use, from the beginning to end of the 20th century. The author sets out to document the social history of lead poisoning, elucidating how (in the author's words) the U.S. became lead poisoned. Initially written as the his doctoral dissertation, the author has accomplished his purpose. The primary audience is anyone who has an interest in the social, political, and cultural events that led us to our current state of affairs regarding lead exposures. The author does not specify an audience of readers, though fanciers of the history of medicine or the social history of public health would be most interested. While some toxicologists, physicians, industrial hygienists, epidemiologists, or other public health professionals may be particularly interested, the book can be easily understood by a lay reader with an interest in this topic. The author has become an authority on the topic through extensive research on this project. There are three parts. First the author begins with lead's ""ancient"" history, an overview of toxicity, and the growth in the use of lead paint. In the middle he describes the response to occupational lead poisoning, the rise of industrial hygiene, and the introduction of leaded gasoline. In the final set of chapters he turns the focus to environmental and pediatric lead poisoning and the current situation. The book is well written and extremely well documented with 75 pages of endnotes. The most unique contribution is the author's use of the history of lead overexposure poisoning as an opportunity to understand the changes in ourculture's perception of health and who should be held responsible for illness. As we as a nation have re-aligned our notions of risk, safety, and responsibility, our acceptance of poisoning -- even at ""low levels"" -- has become unacceptable. While the author documents many of industry's missteps and appropriately is full of outrage, he does not dwell too much on culpability for lead poisoning. For example, he does not address the issue of how tetraethyl lead was picked over other less toxic gasoline additives like ethanol -- largely due to profit in a choice over health concerns. Other authors have been more direct in criticizing industry. The author makes sparse use of figures, which could have enlivened the sometimes slow-moving story. This book will be a good choice for two audiences: the public health professional who wants a detailed history of lead poisoning in the U.S.; and the reader of social history who is looking for a case history of a public health disaster, the nation's response, and evolution of public health sensitivities in our culture. I am not aware of another full-length book on this topic combining occupational, environmental, and pediatric issues.
David Rosner
This is outstanding scholarship and a wonderful narrative. The story of lead—in our paint,gasoline,air,and soil—demands to be understood by someone who has both passion and a sense of outrage,and Warren,in his own measured and subtle way,makes it clear that such outrage is deserved.
J. Routt Reigart
Fascinating and stimulating . . . Brush with Death examines in an interesting and parallel fashion the evolution of thought and actions regarding occupational exposure to lead,lead poisoning during childhood,and the main population-wide risk of exposure to airborne lead from automobiles.
New England Journal of Medicine
Booknews
Children today undergo treatment for lead poisoning when their blood- lead levels reach one-third of the average blood-lead levels for urban children in the 1950s. This history of lead poisoning in the US focuses on lead paint and leaded gasoline and on occupational, pediatric, and environmental exposure. Examines the regulatory mechanisms, medical technologies, and epidemiological tools that arose in response to lead poisoning, and links redefinition of lead poisoning levels to changing attitudes toward health, safety, and risk. Warren is a Mellon/Sawyer Fellow at Emory University. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Doody's Review Service
Reviewer: Joel Kaufman, MD, MPH (University of Washington)
Description: This is a social historian's account of the evolution in America's thinking about lead poisoning, and the forces driving lead use, from the beginning to end of the 20th century.
Purpose: The author sets out to document the social history of lead poisoning, elucidating how (in the author's words) the U.S. became lead poisoned. Initially written as the his doctoral dissertation, the author has accomplished his purpose.
Audience: The primary audience is anyone who has an interest in the social, political, and cultural events that led us to our current state of affairs regarding lead exposures. The author does not specify an audience of readers, though fanciers of the history of medicine or the social history of public health would be most interested. While some toxicologists, physicians, industrial hygienists, epidemiologists, or other public health professionals may be particularly interested, the book can be easily understood by a lay reader with an interest in this topic. The author has become an authority on the topic through extensive research on this project.
Features: There are three parts. First the author begins with lead's "ancient" history, an overview of toxicity, and the growth in the use of lead paint. In the middle he describes the response to occupational lead poisoning, the rise of industrial hygiene, and the introduction of leaded gasoline. In the final set of chapters he turns the focus to environmental and pediatric lead poisoning and the current situation. The book is well written and extremely well documented with 75 pages of endnotes. The most unique contribution is the author's use of the history of lead overexposure poisoning as an opportunity to understand the changes in our culture's perception of health and who should be held responsible for illness. As we as a nation have re-aligned our notions of risk, safety, and responsibility, our acceptance of poisoning — even at "low levels" — has become unacceptable. While the author documents many of industry's missteps and appropriately is full of outrage, he does not dwell too much on culpability for lead poisoning. For example, he does not address the issue of how tetraethyl lead was picked over other less toxic gasoline additives like ethanol — largely due to profit in a choice over health concerns. Other authors have been more direct in criticizing industry. The author makes sparse use of figures, which could have enlivened the sometimes slow-moving story.
Assessment: This book will be a good choice for two audiences: the public health professional who wants a detailed history of lead poisoning in the U.S.; and the reader of social history who is looking for a case history of a public health disaster, the nation's response, and evolution of public health sensitivities in our culture. I am not aware of another full-length book on this topic combining occupational, environmental, and pediatric issues.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780801868207
Publisher:
Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication date:
07/28/2001
Edition description:
Reprint
Pages:
384
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.88(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

David Rosner
This is outstanding scholarship and a wonderful narrative. The story of lead—in our paint, gasoline, air, and soil—demands to be understood by someone who has both passion and a sense of outrage, and Warren, in his own measured and subtle way, makes it clear that such outrage is deserved.

Meet the Author

Christian Warren is the Academy Historian at the New York Academy of Medicine.

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