The case-study notes placed next to the toy car displayed as part of the UCL "Object Retrieval" project observe that the four-year-old child who licked the car clean of its white paint, and was supposedly poisoned by the lead in its red paint, was of "Non-European extraction." Whether the child was (or was not) European would at first seem a strangely irrelevant detail to be included in clinical case notes that offer few other clues to the child’s history. However, as historian Christian Warren has demonstrated, lead poisoning, especially in the years leading up to the end of World War II, was regularly assumed to be a social problem blamed on those who suffered from it: children were assumed to be inherently "backward"; their parents "ignorant" and guilty of neglect or bad parenting. Lead poisoning joined a legion of "ghetto problems" attributed to those living in "bad housing" while the lead paint industry and the landlords who employed its paint were largely ignored (Christian Warren, "Little Pamphlets and Big Lies: Federal Authorities Respond to Childhood Lead Poisoning, 1935-2003," Public Health, 120 [May-June 2005], 324). Although Warren’s essay considers a U.S. context, as opposed to the British one of the Object Retrieval child, his work highlights how poor, non-white children were presumed to be most at risk. It also demonstrates how questions of social and racial background entered into discussions surrounding lead poisoning in children, thus shedding some light on why a child’s "non-European" background would seem worthy of note (see Warren, 325).
In recent years, issues of race and immigration have again arisen in connection to cases of lead poisoning in children. In 2003, in response to a bill put before the New York City Council that sought to make landlords liable for lead problems in their buildings, the New York Times reported on the high occurrence, in specific New York neighbourhoods, of lead poisoning in children born outside the United States (Kirk Johnson, New York Times, 30 September 2003, p.1). Claiming that these children often came from countries and regions where lead exposure was endemic, Dr. Jessica Leighton, an assistant commissioner in the city’s Health Department, commented that it was hard to ascertain whether the source of poisoning was from the children’s housing or their country of origin (Johnson, NYT, 30 September 2003, p.1). Despite great changes in their populations, the neighbourhoods with the highest poisoning rates had, however, remained largely stable. This would indicate that poor-quality housing with widespread lead paint in the U.S. domestic environment--and not the children’s countries of origin--were the source of poisoning. It is significant that so many years after the 1963 case notes about the boy admitted to Great Ormond Street Hospital for lead poisoning, that when lead poisoning in children reaches epidemic proportions, it is still the child’s "foreign-born" or "non-European" origins that come under scrutiny and not the lead industry or irresponsible landlords.