In the Heart of Philadelphia’s “Lead Belt”

Caption (PhillyHistory)

Southeast Corner – 7th and Columbia (Cecil B. Moore) Avenue, August 30, 1904. (PhillyHistory.org)

It didn’t make sense.

In the mid-1960s, several public schools in Kensington and North Philadelphia were performing dramatically below both national and local standards. In reading and arithmetic, fourth graders in these schools (all in Philadelphia’s District 5) were, according to Peter Binzen, “a year and two months behind national norms and three months behind the Philadelphia city average.” Of all the city’s 195 elementary schools, “the one with the lowest fourth-grade reading score was located dead in the middle of District 5,” wrote Binzen. “The total performance of children in this school was abysmal.”

Was it something in the air? Maybe in the water? Or in the street grit?

Herbert Needleman, a public health physician at Penn, had a hunch that might be the case. About the same time as Binzen was conducting research for Whitetown, U.S.A., Needleman set out to measure the lead levels of inner city children, and targeted those of District 5. Ideally, Needleman would have wanted bone biopsies to obtain the most reliable data, but that wasn’t possible. So he adopted a method employed by environmental scientist and peace activist Barry Commoner who raised public awareness about cancer-causing strontium-90 from nuclear tests. Commoner obtained his data by analyzing children’s teeth. Needleman collected 69 baby teeth in District 5 and compared their lead levels to those of a control group from District 8, in the Northeast section of the city.

Detail: Southeast Corner - 7th and Columbia (Cecil B. Moore) Avenue, August 30, 1904. (PhillyHistory.org)

Detail: Southeast Corner – 7th and Columbia (Cecil B. Moore) Avenue, August 30, 1904. (PhillyHistory.org)

Results of the “tooth fairy project,” as it became known, were published in The New England Journal of Medicine. “Urban children had nearly five times the concentration observed in their suburban counterparts.” Lead poisoning in District 5, manifested in psychological and neurological symptoms, including permanent developmental delays, would be described as “stark and startling.” The contrast with data collected in District 8? Cases of lead poisoning in the Northeast were “vanishingly rare.” See this map by Miad Ahmed Alfaqih.

The “tooth fairy project” became a watershed public health moment. District 5 would gain notoriety as Philadelphia’s “lead belt,” and lead would be considered a severe, national, public health problem—one not entirely understood and very much out of control.

Continuing his research, Needleman reported on what he found in District 5’s schools identified only by their initials. “PT” is Potter-Thomas at 6th and Indiana, “PLD” is Paul Laurence Dunbar at 12th and Columbia (Cecil B. Moore); “JRL” is James R. Ludlow, at 6th and Master; “GC” is George Clymer at 12th and Rush; “JE” as James Elverson at 13th and Susquehanna; and “JF” is Joseph Ferguson at 7th and Norris. In these schools, and others, Needleman’s team collected and tested “interior dust,” “playground dirt” and “gutter dirt.” They tested 219 children for lead and confirmed their earlier, grim findings.

Children growing up in Philadelphia’s “lead belt” were seriously at risk.

Lead-laden industrial Philadelphia had left a toxic legacy behind. The area known as Philadelphia’s “lead belt” had long been home to the Philadelphia Lead Works, Standard White Lead, Color and Putty Works, Western White Lead Co., as well as other 19th-century and 20th-century manufacturers upwind from the tested schools. They spewed pollution, tainted the water, soil and dust. More: the very houses citizens called home had been painted, again and again, with “pure white lead” paint. Thousands of deteriorating, 19th-century homes coated with layers of chipping and peeling paint were poisoning their occupants. In an environment this compromised, with lead embedded in everything and everywhere, researchers found startling levels in their samples collected inside the schools, from playgrounds, from the streets. Lead had made its way into the teeth, into the blood and into the brains of growing, learning children.

They didn’t have a chance.

Lead paint would be banned in 1978. But according to the 2014 Childhood Lead Surveillance Annual Report, Philadelphia still ranks as Pennsylvania’s “top county for children under 7 years of age tested for lead.” Experts believe 10 percent of Philadelphia’s children have “elevated blood lead levels”—maybe higher—they don’t really know. Even today, decades later, the vast majority of children are not even tested.

It still doesn’t make sense.

[Sources include: Laura Benshoff, Eleanor Klibanoff, Marielle Segarra and Irina Zhorov, The Legacy of Lead in Pennsylvania Cities, Keystone Crossroads (2016); America’s ‘Lead Wars’ Go Beyond Flint, Mich.: ‘It’s Now Really Everywhere,’ Fresh Air, NPR, March 3, 2016; Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America’s Children (California/Milbank Books: 2014); Herbert Needleman, et al. “Lead Levels in Deciduous Teeth of Urban and Suburban American Children,” Nature, January 1972, Vol. 235, Issue 5333; “Subclinical Lead Exposure in Philadelphia Schoolchildren — Identification by Dentine Lead Analysis,The New England Journal of Medicine, 1974, 290: 245-248; and “Dentine Lead Levels in Asymptomatic Philadelphia School Children: Subclinical Exposure in High and Low Risk Groups,” Environmental Health Perspectives, May 1974, Vol. 7; Peter Binzen, Whitetown U.S.A. (Random House, 1970); 1976 Bulletin Almanac (The Evening and Sunday Bulletin, 1976).]

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