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America's 'Lead Wars' Go Beyond Flint, Mich.: 'It's Now Really Everywhere'

David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz chronicle America's poisonous relationship with lead in Lead Wars. "We've created a terribly toxic environment in all sorts of ways," Rosner says.


Other segments from the episode on March 3, 2016

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 3, 2016: Interview with Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner; Review of the new music album "Going Down in History."



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Flint, Mich. is hardly the only city with a lead problem. Lead used to be all around us - in our water pipes, our gasoline, our paint - and we're still facing the consequences. We're going to talk about how lead became so omnipresent, how health experts figured out that it was hazardous and why it took so long for lead to be regulated. My guests are David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, authors of the book "Lead Wars: The Politics Of Science And The Fate Of America's Children." Rosner is a professor of history at Columbia University and a professor at its Mailman School Of Public Health. He's the co-director of the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health. Gerald Markowitz is a distinguished professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. They've both served as historical consultants and expert witnesses in lawsuits against the lead industry. David Rosner, Gerald Markowitz, welcome to FRESH AIR. Are there other cities besides Flint that you're concerned about having lead pipes or other sources of lead in the water?

DAVID ROSNER: Well, essentially, yes - not only lead pipes but also lead on the walls, lead in the soil, lead in the air. The problem with lead is that it's now really everywhere, and we've created a terribly toxic environment in all sorts of ways.

GERALD MARKOWITZ: In Washington, D.C., just a few years ago, there was a tremendous scandal about lead in the drinking water and lead even in the public schools. And one of the unfortunate things is that we do not have the testing program for lead in public schools in the water. So we don't really know how many children are being exposed to lead in the water in their schools.

GROSS: When was lead in pipes outlawed?

MARKOWITZ: Well, basically, it stopped being used in the 1980s, but lead has continued to be used in solder in lead pipes so that it remained possible to contaminate the water even in pipes, you know, up until 2014.

GROSS: So if you have pipes in your home that were installed before the 1980s, do those pipes probably have lead?

ROSNER: Well, probably in the form of solder. Not all pipes inside have lead, and certainly not all cities are using lead pipes. Some water systems actually use copper and iron and cement as their piping source. So it's often a problem in cities that were built between, you know, the early 1900s, late 1800s and the early 1940s and in cities where cheaper housing sometimes exists - because lead is relatively cheap - and in which unions did not have any power to make sure that lead was not used in their pipes. In the early part of the century - for example, New York City - we don't have as big a problem with lead in pipes because many of the unions demanded that we use copper and essentially we, by happenstance, don't have that kind of problem.

GROSS: How do we know if there's lead in our pipes?

MARKOWITZ: Well, really, unfortunately, the only way to know is to actually test the water. And the EPA has established levels of 15 parts per billion of lead in water that should not be exceeded. But that's the only way to know is to actually test the water.

GROSS: And can you do that as an individual?

MARKOWITZ: No (laughter). You really need somebody - I mean, you can collect the water and send it out to a...

GROSS: That's what I mean. Can you collect it and - who do you send it to?

MARKOWITZ: There are a variety of water testing places that you can test your water for all sorts of things. I mean, you can test it for bacteria, you can test it for other contaminants. Actually, I think in some places like in New York State, you can send it to a state testing agency.

ROSNER: Every state has its own regulations, every community has its own agency, so it's difficult to really say who is the place to send it.

GROSS: Have you tested the water in your homes or offices?

ROSNER: I'm personally scared to do that. I don't like...

GROSS: (Laughter) That's kind of how I feel.

ROSNER: ...Thinking about it, quite honestly. I don't want to know (laughter). You know, there's certain things I did do before my children were born to try to protect them from lead. I basically had our apartment scraped - had the lead taken off. I don't know if it was done well, I don't know how effective it was, but it was my symbolic attempt to control an environment that I don't really control very well.

GROSS: Would you have scraped the paint?

ROSNER: That's what we did. We had the wall scraped before my child was born. And, you know, again, looking at the way it was done, it wasn't the best of ways. We hired a man who said he knew how to do it. And thinking back, he was not doing the proper thing. It's a very complicated process.

GROSS: But was there just dust that was left over that you were afraid could have been harmful?

ROSNER: Yeah, luckily we had the advantage of having a summer vacation while he was doing it, so we weren't in the house. And our kid hadn't been born. So we came back to a pretty pristine environment. But the few times I was around the apartment at that time, I saw lots of dust.

MARKOWITZ: Unfortunately, David's experience was very typical, especially prior to the 1990s, when sandpaper was used, blow torches were used. That ended up creating a tremendous amount of dust that not only harmed children and adults who were living in the apartment, but also the people who were taking the lead off of the walls. So it was really quite a disaster in many cases.

GROSS: So why is lead especially harmful to children, and in very small doses even?

MARKOWITZ: Lead is a neural toxin. Basically, it interferes with the development of the brain, and it causes IQ loss. It causes behavioral problems. It causes attention deficit disorder, hyperactivity, dyslexia - and this is today. When you talk about the effects of lead on children in the 1930s and '40s and '50s and '60s - even into the '70s - you're talking about children going into convulsions as a result of having just little chips of lead that they put into their mouths and ate.

ROSNER: It doesn't take very much lead to poison a child. That's really the shocking thing that we discovered when we were doing our research and our historical research. As early as the 19-teens and the 1920s, they were documenting children who had absorbed lead on their fingers as dust and had put their hands in their mouth and actually began going into convulsions. They also had children who sat at their cribs and put their mouth on there or put toys in their mouth or were around furniture and absorbed lead that way. So it's not like you need a lot of it. You know, the average can of paint in the 1900s to, you know, around 1950 contained up to 50 percent of lead carbonate, which is lead. So it was a lot of lead, and it takes just a couple of grams of lead to send a kid into serious damage. So what we did, essentially, for 50 years is cover our entire nation, during the period when we - the economy was moving from an agricultural society to an industrial society to an urban society - we built most of the structures that surround us even today in that period of time in inner cities and poor communities. And those were all being painted at one point or another during that 50-year period with lead. I mean, our cities expanded dramatically, and with it went the covering of this society with lead paint.

GROSS: What quality does lead give to paint?

MARKOWITZ: It lasts a long time on the walls. It is very bright. It doesn't chip as easily as some zinc paint. There were other pigments, like zinc, for example, that also had very good qualities. For example, lead paint - if it was used on the outside of a house and there was a factory that was belching smoke outside, the lead pigment would discolor more quickly than if that house had been painted with zinc pigments.

GROSS: So lead was not only in pipes for a long time and in paint for a long time, it was in gasoline for a long time. And we were filling up our cars with gasoline that had a lot of lead in it. What was lead doing in gasoline?

ROSNER: Well, in the late 19-teens, General Motors was kind of a second-class company right behind Ford as a major producer of cars. The Ford was the Model T that, you know, dominated the market. And General Motors invented this material called tetraethyl lead along with DuPont company, which actually owned General Motors at that point. And the two companies combined with Standard Oil to actually introduce this lead into gasoline because it appeared to create a much more powerful gasoline that burned more quickly and eliminated what was called the knock in engines, which was kind of an inefficient form of burning. So it gave the General Motors Company a method for actually building much more powerful cars - what we would later call, you know, the muscle cars of the 1950s - big, heavy cars that went fast. And it was really out of this invention, this discovery that lead in gasoline could improve performance and increase the speed and power of a car that we developed this huge problem of environmental pollution.

MARKOWITZ: And of course, the public health community had a lot of experience with lead by the 1920s. Many workers got lead poisoning working at lead batteries or lead paint factories. By the 1920s, some children were dying as a result of ingesting lead in paint. And they said, this is crazy to put lead into gasoline and - where it's going to come out in the tailpipes and pollute cities all over the country. And the response of the lead industry to this idea that lead could be dangerous was that tetraethyl lead, which was the ingredient that was added to gasoline, was, in their words, an apparent gift of God. And how could we stop progress just because it was possible that there could be some danger that had not yet been fully proved that lead on streets and sidewalks could damage people in the future?

ROSNER: To really prove it, you have to wait 50 years. You have to see what the effects are. And that's what happened. We waited 50 years, and we discovered in the '60s and '70s and '80s we had an enormous environmental problem where lead was everywhere.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk more about lead and why it's so dangerous and how it was used and where it's still used. I have two guests, David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz. And they're the co-authors of the book "Lead Wars: The Politics Of Science And The Fate Of America's Children." We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And in the wake of what's going on in Flint, Mich., we're talking about lead - lead in pipes, how lead was used gasoline, lead in water and lead in products. I have two guests to talk about lead, its hazards and the history of how industry has dealt with the knowledge that it's toxic.

David Rosner is a professor of history at Columbia University. He's also a professor Columbia's Mailman school of Public Health. He co-directs the Center of the History and Ethics of Public Health. Gerald Markowitz is a distinguished professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Rosner and Markowitz are the co-authors of the book "Lead Wars: The Politics Of Science And The Fate Of America's Children."

So let's talk more about lead. How was it discovered that lead was toxic and that it caused serious health problems, especially in children?

ROSNER: Well, the first studies that appeared really came out of Australia. They had known for many years that lead poisoned workers that were exposed to it. Miners and users of lead products had actually developed very acute and very serious lead poisoning, acute symptoms. In 1904 or thereabouts, right at the turn-of-the-century, a series of investigators in Australia - in Queensland, actually - identified that children who were living in homes that were covered with lead paint - on their verandas and in their rooms - were also showing the same signs that workers had. They had - going into coma. They were going into neurological seizures, and they were dying from the same kinds of symptoms. And they posited. And they said this looks like lead poisoning. This is what an industrial worker comes down with. Let's see if it's the lead.

And they identified lead paint as the major problem.

During the 1920s, researchers in the United States and in England and elsewhere began to really identify lead poisoning in children. And they identified the toys and cribs and the woodwork as a source of lead. And they said we have a problem here. And the problem is that the child - and this is the quote - "a child lives in a lead world." Everything around them, by this point, is covered with lead - their toys, their cribs, their playthings, their woodwork, their walls. Everything has some lead in it. And these kids who crawl on the floor are getting this dust on their hands, putting their hands in their mouth and absorbing lead. And lead, we know, accumulates in the body. And it just accumulates, and that's the problem. So by the 1920s, the medical and public health community had essentially identified this major problem. The industry itself began a marketing campaign. And the marketing campaign, essentially, tried to assuage the worries of the larger community about the dangers of lead. They started saying lead in our pipes and lead on our walls and lead in our paint is not a health problem - it's actually a means of promoting health.

GROSS: How was lead in paint described as a means of promoting health?

MARKOWITZ: Well, lead was seen as a cleaner surface than wallpaper - that wallpaper would accumulate germs and it was harder to clean than a freshly painted wall that could be wiped clean with soap, you know, every week. And so I think that was one of their major arguments for why lead was a healthier substitute for wallpaper.

ROSNER: They call it sanitary and bright. And unlike the 19th century wallpapers, which were dark and dingy and accumulated dust, this could be cleaned as a modern home could be cleaned.

MARKOWITZ: And they advertised lead for use in hospitals as one of the major selling points that it was clean and it was sanitary.

GROSS: Are there documents that show that the lead industry intentionally misled the American public, that they understood the hazards of lead and yet they promoted it?

MARKOWITZ: Absolutely. The lead industry went around the country saying to doctors - you have proved completely that lead is the cause of children going into convulsions and children dying, that you need to do much more sophisticated studies. You need X-rays. You need a variety of other techniques. And meanwhile, the medical community was saying the number of cases we have is a vast underestimate of the number of children because the lead poisoning symptoms mimicked the results of high fevers and other kinds of conditions. But the lead industry was saying the opposite. They were saying lead poisoning was overstated and that doctors were misdiagnosing children.

ROSNER: And this is despite the fact that they were collecting articles from all over the country that indicated that there were reports of children being poisoned by lead in newspapers. And they were collecting that and talking about that in their meetings, that they had 500 articles from around the country. I think it was because 1932. Is that right, Jerry?

MARKOWITZ: They're beginning to collect them...


MARKOWITZ: ...In the '30s, yes.

ROSNER: Right.

GROSS: So looking back from a public health perspective, do you think that there are patterns of health problems that, in retrospect, you can attribute to lead that were not diagnosed as lead poisoning at the time?

ROSNER: Well, you know, of course. We can all remember in the early '70s and '80s when we were concerned about issues like hyperactivity in schools, attention deficit disorder, behavioral problems. Some researchers now - you know, it's hard to figure out whether or not this is accurate - argue that the crime epidemic was partly due to lead exposures because of the inability of kids to restrain behaviors or to their inability to really rationally deal with things quite in the same way they wanted. So there are all these arguments. Any individual issue is hard to say is due to lead. But certainly, collectively, we know that a child - groups of children - and when we compare groups of children who have lead in their blood and lead in their teeth and lead in their bones, historically, those kids have bigger problems than kids who don't. And that's what we really know. And they have problems in school. They have problems learning. They don't do as well on tests. They have inability to follow lines. So what we know is, as a collection of children, there's a problem. We don't know about any individual act.

GROSS: So where does regulation start entering the picture?

MARKOWITZ: Well, that's one of the interesting things about the Lead Industries Association because, beginning in the 1940s, they make one of their major objectives to prevent states and localities - much less the federal government - from passing any regulations, not only - forget about banning lead in paint, but just issuing warnings about - that lead in paint could present a danger to children. And they actually got a lead ordinance that was passed in Maryland. They got that overturned, and - so that they were very active in what they said was cultivating the goodwill of public health authorities so that they wouldn't propose lead legislation that would be harmful to the industry.

GROSS: My guests are historians Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, authors of the book "Lead Wars: The Politics Of Science And The Fate Of America's Children." After a short break, we'll talk about what they discovered reading 1950s documents from the lead industry.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview about why America still has a problem with lead poisoning. Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner are the authors of the book "Lead Wars: The Politics Of Science And The Fate Of America's Children," which was published in 2013. Rosner codirects the Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health. Markowitz is a distinguished professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. They've both served as historical consultants and expert witnesses in lawsuits against the manufacturers of products containing lead. One of the issues they write about is why the government took so long to regulate lead, long after medical experts knew it was toxic.

So when does the government start regulating lead?

ROSNER: It's very late. The federal government certainly has no agency that can really regulate lead until the 1970s. We don't have a Consumer Product Safety Commission, we don't have NIOSH - National Institutes of Occupational Safety and Health - we don't have OSHA, you know, we don't have the EPA until 1970. So one of the problems was there was no federal presence that could really pass regulation. In the late 1960s, when lead became a major issue for community groups such as the Black Panthers and the Young Lords in New York particularly, and there were methods for testing kids, it became a big political issue. And there was a representative in New York named William Ryan from the Upper West Side - our neighborhood - who tried to pass national legislation and got some ordinances passed in 1971 about the need to reduce the amount of lead and to identify it as a hazard for children in labels. And then in 1978, the Consumer Product Safety Commission passed a regulation basically banning lead for use of paints that were meant for indoor use - in other words, in residences. So it was a very haphazard process because most of these regulations had to be passed at the local or state level. And, you know, these industries did a lot of lobbying to make sure they weren't passed at the local level.

MARKOWITZ: In 1972, the federal government basically banned the use of lead in any federally-subsidized housing. So that was really the first federal action. And what states did before 1972 was require warning labels that warned about the dangers of lead. And those warning labels would say that paint that was intended for interior use should not contain more than 1 percent lead. But of course, surveys that were done after those ordinances were passed found that many stores were selling paint for interior uses that contained much more than 1 percent of lead. Not to say that even paint with 1 percent represented a danger to children.

ROSNER: It should be mentioned that some communities actually did ban lead for indoor use. I mean, New York City in 1960 passed an ordinance saying you can't use it for indoor paints. I don't know how strictly it was enforced, but that's often pointed to as a kind of very small victory here.

GROSS: Have poor people and people in older housing been disproportionately affected by lead? And has that translated into disproportionally affecting African-Americans?

MARKOWITZ: Absolutely. I mean, I think lead poisoning in children is one of the most important environmental justice issues that we have in the United States today. The Centers for Disease Control has said that a child should not have more than five micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. And they estimate that over 500,000 children have more than that level in their blood, and a disproportionate number of those children are African-American and Hispanic.

ROSNER: I mean, one of the interesting things and terrifying things and horrifying things about this whole story is the use of race as a means of, in some sense, ignoring what was known for close to a century. In the 1950s, we found these documents and these letters between people in the Lead Industry Association and even the federal government that basically say that the problem of lead poisoning will exist until we can get rid of all our old housing, and that will never happen. And the second point that they make is that it's only - this is their quote, so please understand that - it's only a problem among Negro and Puerto Rican families, and that it's probably due to the ignorance of those families that there is a problem with lead poisoning.

MARKOWITZ: They actually call the parents ineducable parents. And they, you know, are blaming the children and their parents for the lead poisoning that is caused by the lead that they have pushed to be put on the walls of houses all across the country.

GROSS: What exactly were they blaming the parents for?

MARKOWITZ: That they were not educated enough to keep lead away from their children, which, of course - anyone who has had a toddler knows that you can't keep a child's hands away from their mouths. And if they're crawling on the floor, and there's lead dust on the floor, then they inevitably get lead into their bodies. And they become lead poisoned.

ROSNER: The irony, in some sense, for the industry, is that in the 1950s this kind of argument would work because people felt - there was enough racism that you didn't really have to pay attention to these kids. But in the 1960s, as I mentioned before, community groups picked up on the fact that African-American children were at high risk and Hispanic children were at high risk. And they actually turned their argument on their head, saying, well, our children - this is a paradigmatic disease; this is a model disease for racism and for poverty and the existence of poverty in America. So we begin to see this awakening of interest in this issue mainly because of the social movements of the '60s and the early '70s, where suddenly we become aware of racism, or we become aware of poverty, and we say that's not acceptable. In the '50s, it was still acceptable, unfortunately.

MARKOWITZ: You know, we started talking about Flint. And one of the crises of Flint was that the percentage of children ages 5 and below who were lead poisoned doubled as a result of their drinking the water. But even in Pennsylvania - Allentown, for example, has 23 percent of the children who were tested ages 0 to 5 with elevated blood lead levels. That compares to about 9 percent in Flint. Even in Philadelphia, 10 percent of the children have elevated blood lead levels. So this is really a national problem in any city with older housing. Any city where you've had white flight, and African-Americans and Hispanics have moved into old housing, is going to have elevated blood lead levels in its children.

GROSS: And as you point out, people gentrifying old houses will also be exposed.

MARKOWITZ: Absolutely. And in fact, one of the law cases that were brought against the lead industry was started by Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse when he was attorney general in Rhode Island. And he became interested and concerned about this issue because he was renovating his house and his children got lead poisoned. So this was something that continues to happen throughout America today.

ROSNER: He began - Sen. Whitehouse, when he was still attorney general - began probably one of the most important efforts to finally rid our cities of lead in a lawsuit that he began in which he demanded from the lead industry itself - from Sherwin-Williams, from National Lead, the companies that were producing lead paints - money to not just compensate the city and the state of Rhode Island for the damage done to kids in the past but money to actually get the lead off the walls so that future generations were not injured. It was a groundbreaking effort. Jerry and I were absolutely ecstatic that history played an important role and that we were testifying in that case. And it ended up with the jury coming back saying that the industry was liable for making this mess, and therefore they should clean it up. And it went to jury, and the jury came back with somewhere between a 1 and $4 billion decision about much money should be invested in removing lead so that children weren't damaged. What happened, however, two years later, was that that was overturned by the Rhode Island Supreme Court. Now at this point today, a similar suit was brought in California in which a judge determined that the cities of San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and other communities and counties in the state should be given monies to remove lead and to remediate the problem.

GROSS: Are you going to be witnesses in that California case?

ROSNER: We actually have been. We're both - the case has actually taken - has ended. It ended about a year and a half ago. And it's now in the appeals court and the California Supreme Court. The industry, of course, is hoping that they overturn it, just as Rhode Island's case was overturned. In Rhode Island, we were each on the stand for five and a half or six days. And then in California we were on the stand for a couple of days each.

GROSS: That's a long time to be testifying.

MARKOWITZ: Well, most of it was cross-examination by the defense (laughter) in which they really tried to basically justify their actions and tried to undermine their own documents that we presented on direct examination.

ROSNER: The irony is that by cross-examining us, we had a chance to present these documents - many of them - and the judge and the jury saw the logic of it.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. My guests are historians David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz. They're the authors of the 2013 book "Lead Wars: The Politics Of Science And The Fate Of America's Children." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're talking about lead - why it's toxic, why it's been used in things like pipes and gasoline and what has been done about it. I have two guests. David Rosner is a professor of history at Columbia University and co-director of the Center of the History and Ethics of Public Health. Gerald Markowitz is a distinguished professor of history at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and The Graduate Center of the City University of New York. They're the authors of the book "Lead Wars: The Politics Of Science And The Fate Of America's Children." How did you become involved in being expert witnesses in cases having to do with lead?

MARKOWITZ: Well, in the mid-1980s, we first began to study childhood lead poisoning with the introduction of lead into gasoline. And then, probably 15 years later, we were invited by the New York City Law Department to come down to their offices. And we went into a room that was maybe 10 feet by 30 feet that was absolutely lined with documents that they had gotten under discovery from the lead industry - the minutes of meetings, the letters back and forth, memos, advertisements that they made. And they asked us to go through those documents and tell them what it was that the lead industry knew about the dangers of lead poisoning and what they did and did not do with that knowledge. And that became the basis for our testimony in both Rhode Island and in California.

ROSNER: The city of New York had been sued by some people in housing whose children had been poisoned by lead. And they had in turn said, OK, we're settling these suits. We understand our reliability, but if we are liable, why aren't the people who actually sold us this material liable as well? Why are we being held solely liable? So that's where we came in. We just had published this article, you know, 15 years before, as Gerry said. And it was like being in a historian's candy store if it wasn't such a tragic form of candy.

MARKOWITZ: You know, David and I grew into young adulthood at a time when people understood in the society that the most vulnerable in the society needed to be protected, needed to be given a chance to have a decent life. And today, we have seen the attack on government, the attack on regulation. And there is no longer that belief that the society has an obligation to protect the most vulnerable. And that we allow over 500,000 children - disproportionately African-American and Hispanic - to be poisoned by something that is in their own homes is, I think, a terrible condemnation of where we are at this point in our history.

GROSS: David, as co-director of the Center of the History and Ethics of Public Health, are there any ethical questions that come up about historians being expert witnesses in trials like the lead industry and the city going up against each other? And were you paid for your testimony, and if so, did that present ethical questions that you had to work through?

MARKOWITZ: Well, we are paid as expert witnesses. And we are spending our - a great deal amount of time preparing for these cases. And expert witnesses in all sorts of lawsuits are paid. And we felt that that was something that was all right for us to do.

ROSNER: I mean, the reality is that, you know, this is an enormous amount of work - appearing in the court case. It's strenuous, it's anxiety-provoking. You actually come under attack. The industries do not like hearing this history, and they want to make sure you are discredited. Recently in the last, you know, about 10 years ago, we came under very, very vicious attack from 10 of the largest corporations in America of chemical industry. And we were really pleased that the historical community, I think, learned a lot from that. And they actually came to our defense. They said we're recognized historians, we did this work with integrity and that our work stands up to any kind of scrutiny, despite the fact the industry had subpoenaed historians who had reviewed our books and articles, they had brought them down to court, they had subpoenaed the universities that we worked at for all their records about us, they had subpoenaed the University of California Press. They had actually hired another historian to attack our ethics - literally 40 pages of what we considered drivel - but, you know, to attack our ethics, saying that somehow the fact that we were participating in public debates and taking a stand was unethical. So, you know, on one hand, yes, some historians will question us. I don't think the mainstream of history of the American Historical Association looked at our work and said that this is the best of history - not the worst - and this is really important for historians to do. So we were very gratified by that because we had reputations that we take money for doing research. You know, some of it we do give away, but, you know, we do get income from it - a lot of income. But I don't think anybody could submit themselves to this kind of scrutiny without recognizing how much work that went into it and how much effort goes into it. And it's just the reality of the legal system.

GROSS: As historians, what are your takeaways from the situation in Flint, Mich.?

MARKOWITZ: You know, what happened in Flint has garnered a tremendous amount of publicity. And the people of Flint are suffering a terrible cause for alarm about what harm may come to their children. But if Flint has had any good effect, it is that it has directed attention to the fact that Flint is not an anomaly, that Flint is an example of urban areas all over the country where children are being exposed to lead, children's lives are being damaged by lead. And it's not just the water, but it's also the paint that's in their homes, it's in the soil that is around their houses. And if it brings more awareness to this problem, that is a wonderful thing. But if that awareness doesn't lead to some kind of action by the state, federal and city governments, then we will not have fulfilled our obligations as a society.

GROSS: Well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us. David Rosner, Gerald Markowitz, thank you.

ROSNER: Thank you.

MARKOWITZ: Thank you.

GROSS: David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz wrote the 2013 book "Lead Wars: The Politics Of Science And The Fate Of America's Children."

This is FRESH AIR. The Waco Brothers have been around for 20 years now. They're a mostly Chicago-based five-piece band whose most prominent member is the British ex-patriot Jon Langford. The Waco Brothers just released their first album of original material in a decade. It's called "Going Down In History." Our rock critic Ken Tucker has a review.


THE WACO BROTHERS: (Singing) This is the first track from the last album. No one knows which way the ship will head. Sailors take warning, red eyes in the morning. You can't kill us. We're already dead.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: The Waco Brothers are a rock band with a strong country music influence and a punk rock ethos. The result is rough-edge music that sounds as though it's been bashed out in a couple of takes with minimal rehearsal. Instead of seeming sloppy or lazy, however, the music on "Going Down In History" is urgent, precise and pointed.


THE WACO BROTHERS: (Singing) It's all gone. We used up everything. Got to find something to put in its place, got to walk before you can fall down on your face. Going to bite the hand that feeds you, going to bite the hand that feeds you, going to bite the hand that feeds you, going to bite the hand that feeds you. We're going down. We're going down. We're going down. You're going down in history.

TUCKER: A recurring phrase in that song is commit to something drastic. The idea being that extremism in the defense of music is a most admirable goal. Jon Langford is also one of the leaders of The Mekons, one of the most ferociously political of the original wave of punk rock bands. All of the band members sing, but it's Langford's burly shout that is most distinctively recognizable.


THE WACO BROTHERS: (Singing) Tick-tack, clackity-clack (ph) tick-tack, clackity-clack, tick-tack, clackity-clack, tick-tack, clackity-clack, tick-tack, clackity-clack. Round and around in the front and the back. Big boxes ring the town. Dead (unintelligible) falling down. Change is constant. Man, I'm (unintelligible). Some might even call it progress. Tick-tack, clackity-clack, tick-tack, clackity-clack. And you see its shadow. Can you see its spell? A chrysalis spinning in the wind. Out in the cold, dry wind, where we're building our own prison, building our own prison.

TUCKER: The literal centerpiece of this album arriving midway through is "All Or Nothing," a song written by Ian McLagan, the British keyboardist and best known as a member of the Faces who died in 2014. He was a friend of the Wacos, and they give his composition a proper showcase, lifting it into the realm of an anthem of commitment to art and work and love.


THE WACO BROTHERS: (Singing) I thought you'd listen to my reasoning. But now I see you don't hear a thing. Got to make you see how it's got to be. Yes, it's all or nothing, all or nothing, all or nothing from me.

TUCKER: When the Waco Brothers started out, they were almost a parody of a country rock band placed within the context of ironic punk thinking. The band also possesses that Chicago style of deep dish, tough-minded aesthetic analysis. And as Langford in particular dug deeper into the history of American country music, he began to realize the depth of beauty and truth in the best of the genre. With each succeeding album, the Waco Brothers have become less ironic, more sincere and forthright in speaking truth to country rock as a still vital form. "Going Down In History" is the best attempt yet for the band to do what that album title says.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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