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Interviews with news makers and discussion of topics important to Southwest Michigan. Subscribe to the podcast through Apple itunes and Google. Segments of interview are heard in WestSouthwest Brief during Morning Edition and All Things Considered

WSW: Lead Exposure Has A Long History in the US

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 Battermansays 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.

WMUK's full interview with Stuart Batterman

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.

Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. She covered those topics and more in eight years of reporting for the Station, before becoming news director in 2022.