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David A. Stroud

The onset of industrial

exposure to lead

Hernberg (2000) and Needleman and Gee (2013) summarise the

rise of human exposure to lead over the last millennium. Lead

continued to be used in alcohol production, with one of the

earliest public health laws in 1498 prescribing the death penalty

in some German states for those adding lead sugar to wine.

Later US legislation banned the use of lead condensing coils for

rum distillation in 1723.

Needleman and Gee (2013) recount the case of the physician

Sir George Baker who, in 1768, correctly diagnosed the cause of

annual epidemics of colic (with a high case fatality rate), each

autumn in Devon, as arising from acute poisoning derived from

lead keys within the millstones used to press acidic cider juice

(Baker 1772). Yet,

“Rather than receiving praise for his incisive work, Baker

was condemned by the clergy, the mill owners and by fellow

physicians: cider was Devon’s main export. Baker suffered the

fate of many ‘early warning’ scientists whose inconvenient

truths are not welcomed by supporters of the

status quo


(Needleman and Gee 2013).

Whilst Ambassador to France (1776-1785), Benjamin Franklin

correctly diagnosed different routes of lead exposure amongst

different trades and their medical consequences. He concluded:

“This mischievous effect from lead is at least 60 years old;

and you will observe with concern how long a useful truth

may be known and exist, before it is generally received and

practiced on.”

(Franklin 1818).

An epidemic of acute population exposure to lead came with

the Industrial Revolution not least owing to the ubiquity of

lead use in diverse manufacturing processes. Indeed Hernberg

(2000) noted that

“a comprehensive list of exposed jobs would

be too extensive”

to develop.

The nineteenth century saw growing clinical understanding

of the causes and consequences of acute lead poisoning, and

the wide extent of acute, often fatal, poisoning lent urgency

to the need for regulation (Legge and Goadby 1912, Hernberg

2000). Recognising poisoning risks from use of lead glazes,

Josiah Wedgewood pressed government for legislative controls

through extension of the 1833 Factories Act from textile

industries to the potteries. However, opposition from other

pottery manufacturers led to a 30 year delay until statutory

controls on lead were eventually included within the 1867

Potteries Regulations (Needleman and Gee 2013).

The need to reduce levels of lead poisoning was central to the

development of early occupational and public health initiatives

from the second half of the nineteenth century as documented

by Hernberg (2000).

The histories of regulation to remove lead from paint and from

petrol are typical of initiatives to reduce lead exposure from

other sources.

Lead in paint

The risks from exposure to paint containing white lead

carbonate, or yellow lead chromate additives was first recognised

in 1892 and the death of a child from consumption of flakes of

leaded paint was diagnosed and reported in 1914 (Thomas and

Blackfan 1914). Leaded paint was widely withdrawn in Europe

and Australia between 1909 and the 1930s, although with a

motivation to prevent occupational exposure to decorators

rather thanhome owners and their children (Needleman andGee

2013). Many such national initiatives were driven by the national

implementation ofWhite Lead (Painting) Convention adopted by

the International Labour Organisation in 1921 (Hernberg 2000).

This prohibited the use of white lead in indoor painting.

In the UK, Sir Thomas Legge became the first Medical Inspector

of Factories in 1898 and did much to focus attention on, and

reduce the extent of, industrial lead poisoning (Legge and

Goadby 1912). However, he resigned in protest at the British

government’s refusal to ratify the Convention in 1926. In the

USA, the Lead Industries Association managed to block the US

government from signing the Convention, such that federal

legislation prohibiting indoor uses of leaded paint only came

into force in 1972 (Jacobs 1995, Needleman and Gee 2013,

Kessler 2014):

“The consequences of this delay have been disastrous”

(Hernberg 2000).

Lead in paint continues to be manufactured, sold and used in

many countries. A recent analysis by Kessler (2014) showed

use of leaded paints to be legal in 40 countries, many being

developing countries, although also including the major

emerging economies of Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa

STOP PRESS: A global review of the status of phasing out of lead paint was

published by SAICM in September 2015: