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Herb Needleman – a public health hero

One of my heroes died last week. Dr. Herbert Needleman has inspired me since the early 1980s when as an undergraduate I first learned of his work on the effects of lead on children’s brains. His groundbreaking study published in 1979 measured lead in the shed baby teeth of low-income children, finding an association between what were then considered to be very low levels of lead exposure and negative impacts on brain development and functioning.

He was criticized and ridiculed by many including journalists and some of his peers, with the most intense attacks coming from the lead industry who combined their often vicious critique of Needleman’s work with laying the blame for lead-poisoned children on their “poor, uneducated, and often black” single mothers.

Dr. Needleman withstood over ten years of this treatment and was ultimately vindicated after repeated attempts failed to discredit his work and a mountain of additional evidence accumulated supporting his findings about the toxic effects of very low level lead exposure.

As one of the principal architects of the movement to protect children from environmental hazards, he famously said in 2001 that “we are conducting a vast toxicological experiment in which our children and our children’s children are the experimental subjects.” Despite some progress since that time to modernize the assessment of toxic substances, there is no doubt in my mind that this uncontrolled experiment continues.

Among Dr. Needleman’s many accomplishments are the phase-down and ultimate phase-out of lead from gasoline in the United States. Canadian regulation of lead in gasoline, and multiple other sources, lagged far behind the U.S. for many years. Our advocacy work at CELA since the early 1980s, and in collaboration with other environmental, child health, and community groups facing local lead polluting industries, benefited from Herb Needleman’s work.

That work directly influenced every single move to regulate lead in Canada – out of gasoline, paint, other consumer products and food canning, drinking water, lead-contaminated soil removal guidelines, and more. CELA also benefited from his advice during our legal representation in the early 1990s of the Niagara Neighbourhood Association in confronting emissions from the Toronto Refiners and Smelters secondary lead smelter in Toronto.

From his obituary I learned of many other incredible aspects of his long and productive life including work during the 1960s to save war-burned and war-injured Vietnamese children and being jailed with fellow pediatrician Benjamin Spock (yes, that Dr. Spock) during an anti-war protest at the Pentagon.

Herb Needleman’s career and personal commitments epitomized the finest elements of public health, and environmental and social justice. May he continue to be an inspiration to many others.