The Legacy of Lead

Publication Date
December 5, 2019

On April 15th, 2019 the world looked on as smoke billowed over the Paris skyline. Notre-Dame was burning. The flames soon spread, resulting in the collapse of the upper sections of the Cathedral, including the central spire restored by Viollet-le-Duc, and the lead roof below.¹ In the wake of this tragedy many peoples and governments came together to mark the loss of an iconic monument in the history of western architecture. However, a select few, such as the environmental NGO Robin des Bois, began to voice their concerns of a greater threat that would soon descend upon the city from the dark clouds emitted by the flames: the poisoning of the populace with over 460 tons of lead particles.²
The history of humanity is marked by our use and misuse of lead. Some of the earliest uses of lead are found in Anatolian sculptures and jewelry dating back to 6500 BCE. Ancient Egyptians used it as a key ingredient in their skincare and makeup.³ A fifth of recipes found in cookbooks from the Roman Empire include the use of lead as a sweetener, especially in wine. Lead was even used as a staple material in construction for millennia due to its lightness and malleability as a metal, longevity of use, resistance to constant weathering and corrosion, as well as its capacity to be continuously recycled and reused for new projects.4 Lead was present in projects ranging from the structural clamps joining the marbles on the Parthenon, and the pipes connecting the waterways of Rome, to the roof of Notre-Dame.5
Despite its prevalent use, lead remains an extremely deadly substance. It is a neurotoxin that can alter the biology of the human body down to the level of DNA, causing effects that last several generations, if it does not kill or sterilize you first. Children under 6 are especially vulnerable as lead can severely damage their physical, behavioral, and intellectual growth. These dangers are not new and were highlighted by writers such as Vitruvius as early as the 1st century BCE. In Book VIII of On Architecture he cautions against the use of lead pipes, which had a legacy of producing water that was “injurious to the human system.” While lead has been looked upon with suspicion over the centuries, it is only thanks to recent advances in modern science that we are now able to analyze the effects lead and other materials have had on the human body and mind, via their presence in the built environment.
In 1924, after five workers at a Standard Oil Refinery first showed signs of fatigue and soon died while handling lead as a gasoline additive, the US Public Health Service started to investigate the safety of the material. Thomas Midgley, Jr., a General Motors scientist and the developer of the leaded gasoline method, dismissed any concerns and Standard Oil simply claimed that the workers had overworked themselves to death. However, the results of the investigation linked lead exposure to the worker’s deaths; subsequently the New York State Legislature banned the use of all lead as well as any lead-based products. Large manufacturing companies, worrying about the effects of a nationwide ban on the gasoline market, petitioned the federal government to take over the investigation. When the US Surgeon General called for a conference in 1925, private corporations heavily invested in lead made sure to fill up the panels with scientists sympathetic to their interests.6 As a result, the bans on lead in gasoline were reversed nationwide and lead in the atmosphere proceeded to skyrocket for the next 70 years.7 Due to this, the levels of lead in the human body have been permanently and artificially elevated. Currently, global blood lead levels have stabilized at around 50–200 times the pre-industrial average, with the peak being nearly 750 times higher during the 1970s. While there are no safe levels for lead in the human body, these elevated levels are the new standard from which we must measure any further damage.8
In recent decades in the US growing concerns over lead have resulted in the ban of lead-based paint in 1978, lead piping in 1986, and finally leaded gasoline in 1996. However, even with this progress, the reality of our built environment still reflects the legacy of centuries of lead usage. Lower income and minority communities are disportionately left to face the consequences of those past industrial decisions today. This includes at least 6.1 million homes, across the nation, which are still connected to old lead lined pipe networks in poor communities of color, such as Flint, Michigan.9 In neighborhoods with high levels of lead paint in New Orleans and Chicago, troubling correlations emerge between high rates of childhood intellectual disability, minority resident populations, and high levels of urban poverty.¹0 Coupled with a lack of access to affordable healthcare, and lack of legislation for mandatory blood lead testing—especially for children—a great deal of the health hazards caused by lead exposure go overlooked and untreated in communities nationwide. Even when lead testing of buildings is mandated, such as through federal housing projects and public housing assistance programs, toxic properties continue to be pawned off to less fortunate families, due to oversight issues and even the direct falsification of records. One case with the New York City Housing Authority left 4,702 apartments uninspected for lead paint, and over 200 children testing positive for high lead levels as a result. In another case, the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago was vacated by the EPA 8 years after it had been designated a superfund—or hazardous material—site due to high levels of lead and arsenic.¹¹ Seeing how almost 70% of all low income housing in the US is near a contaminated site, the legacy of lead and other toxic materials continues to have a strong presence, especially in poorer communities and communities of color.
Over the last century the average lifespan of humanity has risen by nearly 30 years due to modern innovations in the sciences. We are constantly reminded of the need to take care of our physical and mental health. Unfortunately, the history of our built environments reflect a disregard for the health and safety of their inhabitants and caretakers. The effects of exposure to common building products such as asbestos, lead, formaldehyde and PVC, are not instantaneous nor noticeable. The damage done can lie dormant and metastasize for years before manifesting itself through our aged bodies. By then, it is often too late for us to address the condition of our surroundings or even to draw a connection to it. Though we must contend with the legacies of the buildings of the past, that does not mean that we must simply acquiesce. As we become more informed about the materials that compose the buildings around us, we must make an effort to invest in the long term health and wellbeing of communities who come to call them home.

1. Elian Peltier et al., “Notre-Dame’s Toxic Fallout,” The New York Times, 2019,

2. “Our Lead-y Notre Dame,” Robin des Bois, Accessed Nov 16, 2019,

3. “Lead in History,” Kingston Technical Software, Accessed Nov 21, 2019,

4. L. Needleman, Dr. Herbert, “History of Lead Poisoning in the World,” The Center for Biological Diversity, Accessed Nov 18, 2019,\_the\_lead\_out/pdfs/health/Needleman\_1999.pdf.

5. Evan Hadingham, “Unlocking Mysteries of the Parthenon,”  Smithsonian Magazine, 2008,

6. Deborah Blum, “Looney Gas and Lead Poisoning: A Short, Sad History,” Wired, Jan 15, 2013,

7. Laura Bliss, “The Long, Ugly History of the Politics of Lead Poisoning,” CityLab, Feb 6, 2016,

8. Lead, GreenSpec, Accessed Nov 17, 2019,

9. Olga Khazan, “The Trouble With America’s Water,” The Atlantic, Sep 11, 2019,

10. Vann R Newkirk III, “The Poisoned Generation,” The Atlantic, 2017,

11. “EPA’s Cleanup Plan For East Chicago Complex Raises Concerns,” WFYI Indianapolis, Accessed Nov 26, 2019,

Publication Date
December 5, 2019
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