Lead is a cruel joke of the creator.  It’s an extraordinarily useful metal: weatherproof, malleable, easy to solder and cast.  It’s soft enough not to mess up rifle barrels, and dense enough to make good fishing sinkers, bullets, and shot.  It’s abundant and easy to refine from ore. Lead oxide is extremely white and easy to mill into the powder that used to give the best paint its opacity (the premier brand, Dutch Boy, was produced by the National Lead Company until 1980).  Wrapped in four ethyl groups, it raises gasoline octane so engines can be more powerful.  It makes cheap and useful pottery glaze. There’s more, but you get the idea.

It’s also extremely poisonous, and cumulative in the body. It messes with brain function. Generations of birds are yet to die from eating the thousands of tons of shot we sprayed across marshes and fields.  It probably had something to do with the decline of Rome (storing wine in lead vessels), and we are only now coming out of five decades of mass poisoning from leaded gasoline.  We’re not putting leaded paint on any more, but it was so durable and useful that tons are still where it was put in the first place, which is why repainting your local bridge involves elaborate and expensive dust collection.

Freddie Gray was neurologically poisoned, irreversibly, as a child by paint in his house.  That happens to poor kids in old houses, and it’s still happening. He could have also been poisoned by lead sprayed all over his neighborhood in automobile exhaust, but we got the lead out of gasoline in the 80s by a national administrative action, and the effect on crime rates (for example) has been spectacular (I find Kevin Drum’s analysis persuasive). My kids also grew up up in an old house with lots of lead paint, but they’re fine because they were surrounded by a network of protection that included public health education, lead testing in schools, and parents who had time, money and education enough to (for example) replace the garden soil where we grew vegetables, full of lead from weathered exterior paint, and strip paint and replace hundreds of feet of woodwork inside the house.

Lead out of gas: easy, once we figured it out. Replace lead water pipes: harder, but tractable. Lead paint: an expensive, extensive program of retail enforcement and regulation, imposed on millions of low-information, low-income landlords and tenants for whom it is a daunting and expensive project.

The lead angle in Gray’s story should be more featured in the ongoing news coverage, along with the unemployment, social service denial, educational malpractice, and police abuses raining down on his neighborhood.  Let me say it again: irreversibly neurologically poisoned.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

Michael O'Hare

Michael O'Hare is a Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley.