The (Short) Story of Lead Paint
Long, long before the EPA, ancient artists discovered that lead carbonate made a luxurious white paint that dried fast and had a superior finish. Lead white, as it came to be called, became a mainstay. Until the 19th century it was the only type of white paint used in European paintings. Since lead worked so well on canvases, construction crews figured why not use it on houses and buildings, too. And they did. In droves.
Weirdly, as far back as the Middle Ages, scribes had hinted that lead seemed to have some gnarly side effects. Prolonged exposure to lead paint drove artists to epileptic fits, the monks noted, and sometimes stopped their hearts. But the allure of the toxic alabaster pigment was too great. No one paid any attention — until 1786, when Ben Franklin wrote a whole letter documenting his suspicions about lead.
Old Ben’s letter is absolutely fascinating, and pretty scary, too.2 Franklin describes distilleries, printing houses, and drinking wells positively brimming with lead. But it’s also infuriating, considering that it wasn’t till another hundred years that world governments began to actually do something about it.
Germany sounded the alarm about lead paint first in 1886. France banned it completely in 1909. And across the Atlantic, in the Land of the Free?
Let’s just say we took our sweet time — thanks to persistent lobbying from the lead industry. Remember, it wasn’t until 1978 that we finally yanked lead paint off the shelves. By that time it was really too late to do anything. Lead was everywhere and it wasn’t going away.
FYI: The ancient Greeks knew something was up with lead. Nikander of Colophon, a philosopher, mirrored Ben Franklin’s concerns in 250 BCE. The ancient Romans didn’t get that memo. Centuries later, wealthy Romans were still using lead for everything, including: plates, forks, plumbing, makeup, and wine jugs. Needless to say, many of them dropped dead a few decades early.