In the early twentieth century lead had many domestic uses: in solder for cans, as a gasoline additive to prevent “knocking” in engines, in water pipes, and, most prominently, in interior paint prized for its durability and ability to hold color. Far from being the toxic hazard we recognize today, lead was a valuable commodity. However, by the end of the century, lead had largely disappeared from our environment as physicians discovered the threat it posed to children’s health and mental development.
Old Paint documents the history of lead-paint poisoning in the United States and the evolving responses of public health officials and the lead-paint industry to this hazard up to 1980, by which time lead had been banned from gasoline and paint. Peter C. English traces lead poisoning from a rare, but acute problem confined to a small group of children to the discovery by the end of the 1940s of the dangers of the crumbling lead-painted interiors of inner-city dwellings. He draws on a wide range of primary materials not only to illuminate our understanding of how this health hazard changed over time, but also to explore how diseases are constructed and evolve.