|Pretty picture, bad molecule.|
I'll be very interested to see how far this article and its hypothesis will travel. It could just be the obsession of one Internet-famous blogger, or it could be the starting gun for a variety of interesting policy shifts. But I want to lay down a couple of markers:
Is there a difference between inorganic and organic lead? Mr. Drum does a little bit of sleight of hand (for this nitpicky chemist, anyway) and seems to equate alkylated lead in gasoline (tetraethyllead) with inorganic lead in house paint (lead carbonate, etc). It's probably because the public health folks tend to measure just for lead concentrations in the blood without reference to the source. (Also, how are different lead compounds metabolized?) (See update below.)
The connection between low [lead] and neurotoxicity and the public health consequences: To quote Drum:
For starters, it turns out that childhood lead exposure at nearly any level can seriously and permanently reduce IQ. Blood lead levels are measured in micrograms per deciliter, and levels once believed safe—65 μg/dL, then 25, then 15, then 10—are now known to cause serious damage. The EPA now says flatly that there is "no demonstrated safe concentration of lead in blood," and it turns out that even levels under 10 μg/dL can reduce IQ by as much as seven points. An estimated 2.5 percent of children nationwide have lead levels above 5 μg/dL.The most influential study that I am aware of (Lanphear et al., 2005) argues that the largest drops in IQ are seen with the lowest concentrations of lead. I'd love to know if this has been confirmed -- it seems like a really big deal. In case you think it doesn't really matter, one of the broader trends that we're seeing is young families with children moving back into urban cores and occupying older homes. While there's common defenses (lead abatement is supposed to be done with certified contractors, the classic "all the lead paint's been painted over a zillion times" line), I suspect that the actual effective treatments are more costly than the public health folks (and Mr. Drum) would like to admit.
A new front in the chemophobia wars: I found this quote in Mr. Drum's article from an economics professor rather chilling:
[Professor Smith] has a good rule of thumb for categorizing epidemics: If it spreads along lines of communication, he says, the cause is information. Think Bieber Fever. If it travels along major transportation routes, the cause is microbial. Think influenza. If it spreads out like a fan, the cause is an insect. Think malaria. But if it's everywhere, all at once—as both the rise of crime in the '60s and '70s and the fall of crime in the '90s seemed to be—the cause is a molecule. (emphasis mine)I am familiar with Professor Smith and generally like his thoughts. I might even believe that this is a true-ish statement. That said, I find that last thought to be potentially disastrous for chemistry in the hands of an already chemophobic media and public.
UPDATE: A commenter challenges my question about the accuracy of treating organic and inorganic lead the same. A quick search of Google indicates that the commenter is correct, as you can see below, and that tetraethyllead is combusted into inorganic lead compounds.
the text notes that most actual tetraethyllead acute/chronic exposure is occupational.)
UPDATE 2: I suppose that I should actually say whether or not I agree with Kevin Drum. I agree with him that exposure to lead is bad, and I've read enough of the medical literature to conclude that (as I have noted in the past) I will do whatever it takes to avoid exposing my family to environmental lead (e.g. wiping down the old house I used to live in, monitoring blood lead levels in my children, selecting housing based on potential lead exposure, etc.) I see the avoidance costs as relatively low, and the benefits to my kids (a potential couple of IQ points, mebbe) as worth it.
Whether or not we should embark on nationwide urban lead abatement (and whether or not it will pay off) is a different story, and I am somewhat less convinced. That said, I could imagine worse places to spend the relatively small amount of money ($20 billion) that Mr. Drum is proposing.