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.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

3 thoughts on “Lead”

  1. It's pretty horrifying to think about. It makes me wonder if there are any other materials out there skewing things badly, ones that we just don't know about yet.

    Even more sickening was the suppression of evidence and deliberate apathy, which I think Mark Kleiman pointed out in one of his posts.

  2. Maybe David Brooks will write a column explaining how Freddy Gray is responsible for ingesting lead when he was almost two years old. Maybe it's his parents' fault. After all, there was no lead in the neighborhood I grew up in because everyone had middle-class values. The concrete plant that spewed lead, contaminating the soil and poisoning people, was located across town in a terrible neighborhood that my parents never would have dreamed of living in, especially if they had known about the lead. (They wouldn't even have had to take out a mortgage, because banks didn't lend to people in the lead neighborhood.) Now, I admit that it would be difficult for someone in the lead neighborhood to move into our neighborhood because of restrictive covenants that kept black folks out, but isn't that what gumption is for? Why I bet someone with Brooks's massive intellect and relentless drive could have ingested three times as much lead as Freddy Gray and still manage to maintain the high quality that marks his writing.

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