The brief medical history that accompanied the Object Retrieval exhibit at UCL stated that the white paint on the car contained no lead traces, while the red paint on the car contained lead at 6%. The notes also tell us that the child in question was "originally admitted two years and three months previously, as a case of mental retardation."
Was this miniature Ford Galaxie Sunliner really the culprit in the child’s lead poisoning?
Until 1978, when the use of lead was banned in domestic products in the U.S., the metal was prevalent in household paints, plumbing/pipes, gasoline, and pencils (an article in Life from 1972 reveals that ‘pencils, paint and pottery can give you lead poisoning’). Life, "Consumer Watch," June 2, 1972, p.45.
Until 1955 the levels of lead acceptably found in household paints remained as high as 50%. Even in 2004, a U.S. report noted that "Faucets and plumbing fittings may legally contain up to 8% lead." Note that even this lesser percentage of lead exposure is 2% higher than that found in the red toy paint in the 1960s toy of the Object Retrieval Project--paint to which the child’s severe lead poisoning was attributed (ARC, "Child Lead Poisoning Prevention" Report. February 2004).
Lead poisoning is a cumulative process. In children, who absorb far more of the lead they ingest than their adult counterparts, lead poisoning can have disastrous consequences. In an investigative report into the compensation paid out by manufacturers in cases of lead poisoning, Laura Greenberg describes the effects of exposure to lead on children:
High levels of exposure can cause kidney failure and brain swelling that can lead to coma or death. High exposure can also result in neurological damage, mental retardation, cerebral palsy, seizures, and behavioral problems. Lower levels of exposure can cause reduced IQ, cognitive difficulties, deficits in speech and language processing, attention deficit disorder, and full or partial hearing loss. ("Compensating the Lead Poisoned Child: Proposals for Mitigating Discriminatory Damage Awards").
Is medical science missing a trick in laying the blame for the child’s lead poisoning at the much-licked door of the toy car?
The child displayed symptoms of lead poisoning two years and three months before he was admitted for lead poisoning. When he was admitted to Great Ormond Street Hospital, he was characterized as a case of "mental retardation." Could this have been an unacknowledged case of lead poisoning caused by the ingestion of paint from the walls of his home, the water in his formula that ran through the pipe of his house, or the decorative patterns on the containers used to store his food?
Pica was often the diagnosis for children who put objects in their mouths and then showed symptoms of lead poisoning. The diagnosis was an effective way of laying the blame for children’s illness at the door of lower-class, low-income families who could not control their children. (As described by in Jane E. Brody, "Aggressiveness and Delinquency in Boys is Linked to Lead in Bones," New York Times, February 7 1996).
As historian Christian Warren argued:
In most cities, lead poisoning’s status as a disease of poverty left the iceberg submerged. Cultural assumptions about the poor shifted blame from the toxin to the victim, inhibiting the discovery of the true scope of childhood plumbism and postponing indefinitely its eradication (Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning [Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2000], 182).
Warren cites lead company shill Robert Kehoe using the fantasmatic language of the medical diagnosis of "pica" to blame children and their parents: "unwanted and unloved," these "children develop aberrant apetites, interests and habits of eating (pica), and tend to deviate psychologically from those with more favourable social and physical environments" ("The Harben Lectures," 1961, cited in Warren, 186). The discourse that attributed the blame to children and their parents repeatedly characterized lead poisoning as the result of the "disease" of "pica"--"when little kids put stupid things in their mouths and eat them" (Dr. Vincent Guinee in NY in the 1970s, cited in Warren, 186).
The little boy of the Object Retrieval Project was therefore implicitly blamed for his own condition by being told he "had" pica.
This car is therefore, ironically, a manifestation of pica as a misdiagnosis. It signifies how much the fantasy of the disease of "pica" deterred from blaming the lead paint companies themselves. In suggesting the car as a likely source of lead poisoning, one ignores the evidence that the child may have had been suffering over two years before.his admission to the hospital--and maybe long before he ever saw the toy car. Was there any attempt to record his bone lead levels, which would have shown the cumulative level of poisoning, rather than just that immediate to the blood test? The real culprit in the case most likely gets away.
What is striking about the car itself is that all the white, non-toxic paint has been licked off by the child. The red, lead-based paint remains largely intact. The car itself probably has no real place in the poisoning of the child. However we can strip away this outer layer of information to get at the real truth of the case – just as the child did to reveal the worn grey body of his toy.