A paediatrician and psychiatrist who fought to save children in the US from lead poisoning has recently passed away at the age of 89.

The entrance of a young boy – the start of a journey

In the 1970s, Dr Herbert Leroy Needleman, a paediatrician and psychiatrist from the University of Pittsburgh drew an interesting conclusion with regards to lead poisoning in children and their developmental growth. Through a study that was carried out, he found that children with lead poisoning, even in low levels, suffered from deficits in their intelligence and behaviour.

Dr Herbert Needleman found a relationship between lead poisoning in children and their development. Photo credit: Jim Harrison/Heinz Awards
Dr Herbert Needleman found a relationship between lead poisoning in children and their development. Photo credit: Jim Harrison/Heinz Awards

His mark in campaigning for the fight of lead poisoning among children began when a young boy came to the clinic where he was the community’s psychiatrist at the time. The boy was bright and open but struggled with his speech, a condition similar to those with lead poisoning.

At the time, lead poisoning in large amounts were known to cause mental shortfalls but what was not fully understood was the effect of lead poisoning in small amounts, such as those acquired by children playing at the yard, inhaling lead paint in their houses or while living in industrial areas.

The study of lead poisoning was only limited to patient’s hair, blood, nails and bone data. To pursue his inkling, Dr Needleman needed to get the children’s data, but the acquisition method was too invasive and did not justify as he only had a hypothesis. Thankfully, the alternative lied in the mouth.

He “became the Tooth Fairy”

Referring to the fact that teeth are a part of the human skeleton, capable of absorbing lead and children are still able to shed them, Dr Bernard Goldstein, former dean of the University of Pittsburgh’s graduate school of public health said, “That was the insight that changed everything. Herb became the Tooth Fairy.”

For every fallen tooth given by children aged six and seven in the Boston area, a reward was given. Through analysis of the teeth, Dr Needleman summarized in 1979 that those living in poorer areas had lead levels five times more than the children living in more developed areas. This translated to children with higher lead levels having lower IQ by four points than the children with lower lead levels.

Teachers also reported that the children with high lead levels had difficulty following instructions, as well as being impulsive and hyperactive. In 1990 when a follow-up survey was done, the same children were found to have delays in their reading and completing high school. This became the correlation between lead poisoning and children’s mental and behavioural development.

Easy target of the lead industry

During the time, lead was widely added in paints used in homes and schools, as a varnish on toys, in plumbing pipes and as fuel for cars. Needless to say, Dr Needleman became an easy target for the lead industry. His studies were attacked in the 1990s after years of being on the bad side of the major industry players. He was found to have data that were not comprehensive of the population, but was cleared by the authorities that the ultimate conclusion remained unchanged.

Today, much credit has been given to Dr Needleman’s research for the elimination of lead in gasoline fuel. Dr Needleman was recently deceased at 89 years of age, leaving a legacy in public health, with the banning of lead pipes and decline of lead paint. According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, “No safe blood lead level in children has been identified.”

Apart from advocating the dangers of lead poisoning, Dr Needleman also chaired a group called Committee of Responsibility to Save War-Burned and War-Injured Vietnamese Children, which brought injured youngsters during the Vietnam War to the US for medical care. He had served in the Army with the rank Captain after receiving his medical degree in the 1950s. His passing was due to lung failure resulting from a bout of oedema. MIMS

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