The History of the Use of Lead Pigments in House Paint

Why Lead-Based Paint Was Used

In recent years, the history of the use of lead pigments in paint has been the subject of various unfounded claims.Advocates of litigation against former lead paint and pigment manufacturers look at this history as though they were peering through a telescope – seeing only a very narrow set of isolated details, while taking comments and data out of the centuries-long context of the evolving understanding of health risks from lead in paint.

The use of lead pigment in house paint is explained by three uncontested facts:

  • Master painters demanded lead-based paint, and government experts described it as the “best choice for house owners," because it was washable and durable.
  • Federal and state governments recommended, and often specified its use – in the 1920s, the 1930s and all the way to the 1970s.
  • No U.S. public health official or government – federal, state or local –advocated restricting the use of lead in house paint until 1949, when public health investigations in Baltimore first identified the risks to children from chipping and peeling lead paint in poorly maintained homes.  The federal government did not ban the use of lead-based house paint until the 1970s.

“Best Choice for House Owners"

It is important to examine the history of the use of lead-based paint in the context of the times, keeping in mind the evolving knowledge of the risks of lead exposure over the last century and the rudimentary diagnostic tools available at the time.  At the beginning of the 20th century, Americans were driving Model-Ts, houses didn’t have indoor plumbing, and infectious disease was an ever present fear.Below are the critical points of this history:

  • Lead pigment in paint was a useful, important product, desired by master painters and federal and state governments.

  • In the early 1900s, hundreds of millions of people worldwide died from infectious diseases.  100 million people died from the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918.  At that time, the medical community encouraged people to wash their walls to help avoid disease.  Painted walls were preferred over those with wallpaper because the texture of wallpaper would trap bacteria.  The smooth surface of paint allowed it to be readily washed with either water and soap or a disinfectant, while wallpaper, especially given the paste available at the time, could not stand up to repeated washing.

  • This also was an era when homeowners often did not paint their own homes.  Homeowners instead relied on the expertise of master painters, who were respected for their skills and knowledge of paints.  These master painters often preferred paints with lead pigments.

Lead pigment was specifically desired for use in paint due to its durability.  Lead paint adhered better to wood than any other paint known.  Other paints cracked and peeled off surfaces when they expanded and contracted with the weather.  Lead paint, however, was flexible – it stayed on with the weather and was virtually impermeable to water.   According to F.L. Browne of the U.S. Forest Products Lab, a federal laboratory located in Wisconsin:

“White lead is still one of the most important pigments in good paint.  It is probably the most chemically active pigment and by reacting chemically to neutralize the acid decomposition products of linseed and other drying oils, it enables paint films exposed to the weather to retain their toughness and flexibility for a longer period of time.  White lead has other desirable characteristics....It also makes the paint resistant to absorption of water.  Tests indicate that paints made without white lead absorb up to several times as much water as those having a substantial amount of white lead, which tends to make them weather more rapidly."  

Paints that contained zinc, for example, absorbed 12 to 15 times more water than lead-based paints.  In 1936, Dr. Alice Hamilton of the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, a highly respected and well-known doctor and physician who specialized in occupational health and safety in the 1910s and 1920s wrote about the changes in paint technology:

“Zinc oxide white and lithopone were considered inferior to white lead for interior house painting.And titanium oxide had not yet been introduced."

“Recommended & Specified"

The U.S. Departments of Commerce, Interior and Agriculture, along with other federal and state agencies, recommended lead paint for its durability from the early 1900s through the late 1970s.

Fifty of the public housing projects built by President Roosevelt's Public Works Administration in the mid-1930s specified use of interior lead-based paint to obtain the durability government paint experts found was best provided by such paint.  “Public Housing," “Unit Plans," and “U.S. Housing Projects," The Architectural Forum, 345-424 (May 1938).

In 1939, the U.S. Forest Service said that lead paint is “the best choice for house owners who wish to allow very long intervals, longer than the durability of any other white or tinted paint, to elapse between jobs."  U.S. Forest Service, “Shopping For Paint,"Consumer’s Guide, Vol. 5, No. 16, at 6 (Feb. 13, 1939).

In 1944, the War Production Board resisted the decrease of the amount of lead in paint.

“As a result of these formulation changes, the actual basic carbonate of white lead content of paints is already at an irreducible minimum.  And any further reductions in the lead content could only be made at the expense of durability."

In a 1945, Percy Walker, the chief of the Chemistry Division, and Eugene Hickson of the National Bureau of Standards, presented recommendations as to the use of painting materials to meet federal specifications.  The manual stated:

“White lead, a component of almost all white and light-colored paints, is one of the most important white paint pigments."

In 1933, the American Public Health Association wrote a publication responding to reports of childhood lead poisoning.  The association recommended not using lead-based paint on baby toys, beds and carriages.  However, it also said it otherwise had wide fields of usefulness like house paint:

“Although lead paint has many wide fields of usefulness, babies’ toys, beds and carriages are not the places to put it."

The great majority of interior lead-based paint was applied before 1930.  By 1940, very little lead pigment was being used for interior residences.  A. Hamilton, “Recent Changes in the Painters’ Trade," (Washington: Government Printing Office, (1936).  (“However, this danger is now less common since paint for inside work is so largely free from lead." (p. 38); “…the trend is very decidedly away from lead pigments of all kinds." (p. 41); “Changes in materials have resulted in the displacement of lead pigments in house painting to a certain extent, especially in interior decoration. . ." (p. 1)).  See also Letter from Twombley to E. Vogelsang (War Production Board, 1944) re: Lead Requirements for the Paint, Varnish & Lacquer Industry.  “The use of Basic Carbonate of White Lead in the paint, varnish, and lacquer industry for interior paints is negligible." (p. 1)]



Evolving Understanding of Risks from Lead-Based Paint

Since Greek and Roman times, lead has been known to be toxic if ingested in large quantities. The risks to children from paint on residential walls were not understood, however, until the 1950s when industry-sponsored research helped investigate the problem.

In the early part of the century, the health concern in the U.S. was worker exposure to “clouds of dust" in factories.During this era, industry worked with labor unions and public health officials to minimize worker exposure to lead dust.  These actions reduced occupational lead poisoning without ending use of lead paint.

In Europe, some nations had banned interior lead-based paint to protect painters.  In this country, on the other hand, where many painters opposed such a ban, improved work practices were employed instead to address potential risks.

During the 1920s and 1930s, children diagnosed with a condition known as “pica," or an abnormal appetite for nonfood substances, were reported as having persistently chewed the lead paint off their cribs and toys and sometimes woodwork.  Doctors initially recommended that the correct approach to this risk was for children with pica to be closely supervised and for parents to be educated about the risk.  In the 1930s, that recommendation began to include eliminating lead from paint used on toys and cribs, and for parents to be educated about the risk of repainting such objects with lead paint.

A 1935 broadcast in the Baltimore Health Department’s “Keeping Well" series told parents to “make sure that the child’s furniture, his crib and toys have been finished with paint which does not contain lead.  "The broadcast recommended discouraging children from “putting toys or other objects into his mouth," wrapping crib bars, and “making sure that the child’s furniture, his crib and toys have been finished with a paint which does not contain lead."  The script concluded by noting that if its advice were followed, “no additional cases of lead poisoning in paint-eating children need ever occur."   Francis F. Schwentker, Keeping Well, “Children Who Eat Paint," 199-200 (Oct. 15, 1935).

By the late 1940s, leading medical journals noted that this effort had been successful.  As the New England Journal of Medicine noted in a 1947 editorial, lead paint was no longer used on toys and cribs, "the public has been amply warned of lead hazards," and, thus, lead poisoning was "almost wholly confined to those who are exposed in industry."

In late 1948, public health investigations in Baltimore first identified the risks to young children of chipping and peeling interior lead paint in poorly maintained homes.  Lead manufacturers helped fund Baltimore's investigation and initiated additional studies at Harvard and John Hopkins medical schools.  The results of these studies were published.  Even before publication, industry widely disseminated the results to public health experts across the country.

In addition, as the plaintiff’s expert admitted during the Rhode Island trial, none of the doctors at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore who were very aware of the childhood lead poisoning issue in the 1930s, ever advocated a ban on any kind on lead paint before 1948.

In 1951, Dr. Huntington Williams, Baltimore Commissioner of Health, adopted a regulation that banned the use of lead pigment for interior use in that city. It was the first regulation adopted by a government in the United States. The federal government did not act to ban the sale of lead-based house paint until the 1970s.

In the 1950s, after the Harvard and Johns Hopkins studies confirmed the hazards of poorly maintained interior house paint, industry worked with the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Standards Association and other public health groups to develop a voluntary national standard that interior paint contain less than 1 percent lead.  Industry adopted this standard in 1955.  Paint companies placed warnings on paints containing more than 1 percent lead indicating that they should not be used on interior residential and other surfaces accessible to children.

Statements by respected U.S. public health officials after 1955 confirm that risks from poorly maintained house paint were not understood until the late 1948 early 1950s period.

In 1956, Dr. Julian Chisholm of Johns Hopkins University wrote in an article about children over the age of one living in dilapidated dwellings in which flaking lead-based paint was readily accessible to children:

“Such intense exposure is a preventable hazard to normal small children, and, as such, constitutes a public health problem which may be more extensive than has heretofore thought to exist."

In September 1971, U.S. Surgeon General Jesse L. Steinfeld, M.D., wrote in Pediatrics:

“Lead-based paint was commonly used for interior purposes until the 1940s, when it was largely replaced by titanium-based paint; therefore, children living in dilapidated or obviously deteriorating houses built prior to that time are to be given particular attention."


Research Funded by Lead Manufacturers

Former manufacturers of lead pigment commissioned “no strings attached" research at Harvard University and Johns Hopkins University; all results were made publicly available.  These studies made an important contribution to the public health community’s understanding of lead’s toxicity.

Beginning in 1921, the National Lead Company (now NL Industries), and later the Lead Industries Association (LIA), provided funding to Harvard University.  The studies went on for many years.  Neither National Lead nor the LIA attempted to control or dictate the research that the independent medical professionals conducted.

As the evidence showed in the recent trial in Rhode Island:


  • The research was “no strings attached."Harvard officials, and later, Johns Hopkins University officials, decided which areas to study.   The industry sponsors did not attempt to control the research or influence the results.
  • For example, in a letter dated May 12, 1921 sent from then NL Industries president Edward Cornish to Dean Edsall at Harvard Medical School, Cornish wrote: “Of course, when seeking the assistance of an institution such as yours – whose reports on any matter to which you give attention become at once recognized authority in the scientific world – it would be unbecoming for us to even make a suggestion as to your line and methods of research."
  • No scientific studies known to the LIA or the defendant companies were ever hidden from the public, public health officials, or the government.

In 1924, Dr. Joseph Aub of Harvard wrote in the “Third Report on the Investigation of Lead Poisoning":


“The funds for the investigation were donated by the National Lead Institute.  It is very gratifying that this organization has not at any time offered suggestions as to any policy or point of view, but has allowed the work to run its course and to demonstrate the truth without regard for a possible economic effect upon the lead industries."


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