Baltimore Ecosystem Study Institute of Ecosystem Studies

2011 BES Annual Meeting Presentation and Poster Abstracts

Childhood Lead Poisoning in Baltimore in the Mid-Twentieth Century: Pica, Policy and Climate
Fredrickson, Leif

This paper examines childhood lead poisoning in Baltimore from approximately the 1940s to the 1960s. It argues that childhood lead poisoning explanations at the time over-emphasized pica, the eating of non-food items such as paint chips. Studies of childhood lead poisoning in Baltimore contributed to a scientific discourse on childhood lead poisoning centered on pica and pica’s relationship with the physical environment (deteriorating paint) and social environment (poor, Black, and dysfunctional families). This pica-centered theory dominated until about the late 1970s. After this period, with concern shifting to chronic low-level lead poisoning, public health increasingly foregrounded the physical environment, especially dust, rather than child behavior. Historians and scientists who have analyzed childhood lead poisoning at mid-century have usually either accepted the pica-centered theory as adequate or have called it into question on the basis of its victim blaming and/or racial connotations. This paper, in contrast, tries to examine the empirical basis of the pica-centered theory and how the exigencies of public health helped to consolidate this theory. While not rejecting pica as an important factor, I show (as indeed studies at the time did) that a substantial number of lead poisoned children (30% at least) did not have pica, and pica by itself was a very poor predictor of blood lead levels. Pica for paint (as opposed to clay) was much higher for Whites than Blacks in Baltimore, contrary to most scientific and popular discourse at the time and later. While pica was an important factor, especially for very high blood lead levels, I suggest that some of the patterns of lead poisoning in Baltimore might be explained by high summer winds and massive urban renewal that increased exposure to lead-contaminated dust in the 1950s.