Toxic Truth

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Published by: Beacon Press
ISBN13: 978-0807000328


The first book to tell the incredible story of two men behind the bitter thirty-year fight to protect children from lead.

They didn’t start out as environmental warriors. Clair Patterson was a geochemist focused on determining the age of the Earth. Herbert Needleman was a pediatrician treating inner-city children. But in the chemistry lab and the hospital ward, they met a common enemy: lead. It was literally everywhere—in gasoline and paint, of course, but also in water pipes and food cans, toothpaste tubes and toys, ceramics and cosmetics, jewelry and batteries. Though few people worried about it at the time, lead was also toxic.

In Toxic Truth, I tell the little-known stories of these two men who were among the first to question the wisdom of filling the world with such a harmful metal, following them from the ice and snow of Antarctica to the schoolyards of Philadelphia and Boston as they uncovered the enormity of the problem and demonstrated the irreparable harm lead was doing to children. In heated conferences and courtrooms, the halls of Congress and at the Environmental Protection Agency, the scientist and doctor were forced to defend their careers and reputations in the face of intense industry opposition. It took courage, passion and determination to prevail against entrenched corporate interests and politicized government bureaucracies. But Patterson, Needleman and their allies did finally get the lead out—since it was removed from gasoline, paint, and food cans in the 1970s, the level of lead in American’s bodies has dropped 90 percent. Their success offers a lesson in the dangers of putting economic priorities over public health, and a reminder of the way science—and individuals—can change the world.

The fundamental questions raised by this battle—what constitutes disease, how to measure scientific independence, and how to quantify acceptable risk—echo in every environmental issue of today: from the plastic used to make water bottles to greenhouse gas emissions. And the most basic question—how much do we need to know about what we put in our environment—is perhaps more relevant today than it has ever been.


“Toxic Truth . . . make[s] the process of scientific research riveting . . . The problem [of lead] has not been totally solved, but it has been shrunken and contained, and Denworth’s fascinating historical, biographical, scientific and political saga shows how we got even this far.”
—Sharon Begley, Newsweek

“In Toxic Truth, Lydia Denworth has pulled off a rare feat: she’s written a true page-turner, animated by a fascinating medical mystery, that’s also a nuanced and immensely thoughtful look at how good ideas can overthrow orthodoxy—and ultimately make the world a better place.”
—Steven Johnson, New York Times best-selling author of How We Got To Now

“Before most Americans had given a thought to lead poisoning, a geochemist named Clair Patterson and a passionate doctor, Herb Needleman, were learning how widespread it was, and how damaging. Their work set the framework for the future examination of man-made toxins, and the scientific and political struggles for the truth set a pattern for future battles between industry and advocates over the significance of toxics. With plenty of gritty details, Lydia Denworth tells the story of these two giant lead-killers, shedding light on the foundations of a key issue in public policy.”
—Arthur Allen, author of Vaccine: the Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver

“The ‘unearthing’ of the problem of children’s injury from environmental lead, by intrepid researchers such as Needleman and Patterson, makes for an intriguing chronicle. The pitfalls and challenges they encountered with every step, their persistence in the face of extraordinary attacks, are instructive for others who pursue the truth with the courage of their convictions.”
—Dr. Alan Woolf, Director of Environmental Medicine at Children’s Hospital, Boston

“Toxic Truth is a compelling and forceful portrayal of the lives and pain of these two remarkable scientific pioneers. An impressively researched and well documented book, it is an astonishing chronicle of one of the most insidious and avoidable health problems of our time.”
—Dr. Devra Davis, author of When Smoke Ran like Water

“Toxic Truth is an engrossing and inspiring story of how two courageous men shone the clear light of science on industry’s effort to conceal the harm to our children—and all of us—by lead in the environment.”
—Philip and Alice Shabecoff, authors of Poisoned Profits: The Toxic Assault on our Children