August 27, 2008 · Updated 8:38 PM
According to science, growing up in the mid-part of the 20th Century was like playing in a minefield. Hazards every way we turned. Kids gnawed teddy-bears eyes loose and swallowed them. A sediment layer at the bottom of every toy box held sharp-pointed Pick-Up-Sticks and toxic lead parts broken off toy soldiers mixed along with a wealth of other health-threats.
Paint of that era came in two varieties. Calsomine, better known as whitewash, was made from slaked lime. It was cheap and popular, and on a scale of risk it was pretty harmless. Manufacturers added glue, egg, chalk, Portland cement, salt, soap, and if you wanted to fancy things up a bit, pigment. Its the stuff Tom Sawyer put on his fence.
The other variety was lead paint which was made from litharge, or white lead. Lead chromate added a yellow tint in a lead-plus-lead formula. Lead made paint more durable, gave it a nice finish and resisted moisture. When I was young, I helped paint our house twice with it. Though most families had turned to pre-mixed paint in cans, Dad followed the advice of his deceased painter-father to buy twenty-pound sacks of powdered white lead which we stirred up with linseed oil to make paint. He never suspected that the untimely death of his own father might have been due to lead.
So the outside of our home was multi-layered with lead. Before re-painting we scraped and sanded away loose lead paint. Inside, every surface but plastered walls and ceilings was coated deeply with lead paint. Chairs, bookcases, bicycles, kitchen cabinets, porch and basement floor, the crib rails I teethed on; all of it was covered over with lead. Though latex paint was just then being introduced, Dad remained a stickler for his fathers leaded tradition.
Lead paint was normal. Every home up and down our street was coated with lead paint. Spokane owed its prosperity to the lead and zinc mines beyond Coeur dAlene so local investors and mine workers held lead up as a good thing. These were the people Tom Brokaw wrote about in his The Greatest Generation. All of them with off-the-charts concentrations of lead in their blood.
Lead is dangerous. How dangerous depends on the length and nature of exposure. Lead is useful, as employed in everything from batteries to buckshot. We can rest easy about so-called lead pencils. The black stuff that marks paper has always been graphite, never lead.
So pardon me if I look askance at the latest round of scare stories citing lead content in Chinese toys. Yes, lead is bad. But since my leaded friends from Spokanes West Valley High School class of 1951 lived long, creative and productive lives, maybe we shouldnt get quite so hysterical over infrequent contact with lead. I didnt panic at the 25 pounds of raw lead hung on my weight belt during a recent dive.
Mass-testing showed that children who grew up near Kellogg, Idahos smelters suffered learning difficulties along with other problems. Their 24/7 exposure to lead was severe and prolonged. Smelter fumes that killed off pine forests on nearby mountainsides delivered millions of times the exposure a child gets from gnawing a toy with a little lead in its paint formula. Double the combined effects of todays exposures to lead and they wont come close to matching dire threats of childhood obesity and diabetes.
And then there is asbestos. If you plan to renovate or demolish an elderly building, youll run smack into asbestos-mitigation regulations. First you call in a licensed inspector who may or may not arrive in a haz-mat suit. He will carve out samples from walls, ceilings and floors from each room, bag them and deliver them to a lab that will charge you somewhere between $50 and $300 per test, depending.
Should asbestos be found, more licensed workers show up, definitely haz-mat suited, to extract all the asbestos-containing material which they put in special disposal bags with special tags affixed. More cost. These must be transported to a licensed disposal facility by a specially licensed hazardous-materials trucker. If you want to appeal the process, you contact one of a growing number of asbestos-specializing lawyers. Still more cost.
Im sensitive to the asbestos issue because, when young, I sawed sheets of asbestos to fit behind our upstairs and basement stoves. My hand-saw liberated clouds of truly dangerous asbestos that might have had something to do with my chronic bronchial irritation.
Prolonged breathing of airborne asbestos is profoundly dangerous but shouldnt be equated with brief handlings of the non-friable asbestos found in floor tiles. Non-friable means the asbestos-content stays mostly stuck in the tiles. Yet low-risk and high-risk stuff are made to generate the same level of fear.
Broadcast media love good health-threat issues. Just the thing to fill airwaves should Britney, Paris and O.J. happen to go respectable at the same time. West Nile virus, MRSA infections, killer bees, toxic mold, flammable pajamas or brain tumors from cell-phones; which will top our fear-factor? If tabloids need a fresh scare-story, they have only to check up on the Center for Disease Controls latest study.
There is risk and then there is risk. It seems proper to address the most dangerous exposures first, then worry about detachable eyes on teddy bears. For instance, war is hazardous to health, far more hazardous than lead paint or asbestos. Bullets and improvised explosive devices are especially hazardous, so much so that one would expect the same leadership that protects citizens against lead content in toys to do more to reduce that risk.
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