WSW: Lead Exposure Has A Long History in the US

Feb 14, 2016

Before the Environmental Protection Agency phased it out, leaded gasoline contained as much as two to three grams of lead per gallon.
Credit Joe Mabel / Wikimedia Commons

Lead played a starring role in American life for much of the 20th century. People drove cars that ran on leaded gas and painted their walls with lead paint. Many drank water from municipal pipes and household plumbing made from lead. The University of Michigan’s Stuart Batterman says it added up to “ubiquitous” lead exposure in the United States, with enduring consequences.

“It’s been estimated that all the children that grew up in the '50s, '60s, '70s lost about five IQ points from their exposure,” Batterman says.

Batterman teaches environmental health science at the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health. He’s also a professor of Water Resources and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering.

He spoke with WMUK’s WestSouthwest about the history of lead use and exposure in the United States.

Batterman says the US used “tremendous” quantities of lead in gasoline, which once contained as much as two or three grams of lead per gallon. Even after phase-outs of leaded gas and paint in the 1970s and 80s, some uses that might surprise endured. The government allowed lead solder in food cans until 1995.

Batterman says lead production had peaked in the mid-1970s and then declined, but he says it’s up again due to demand for lead in batteries.

He notes that lead is still used in ammunition and construction, and that the government still allows some aircraft and farm vehicles to use leaded fuel. The Environmental Protection Agency is reviewing some of its rules on lead fuel exceptions.