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Am J Public Health. 2012 Nov;102(11):e19-33. doi: 10.2105/AJPH.2012.301004. Epub 2012 Sep 20.

With the best intentions: lead research and the challenge to public health.

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Center for the History and Ethics of Public Health, Mailman School of Public Health, 722 West 168th Street, Room 934, New York, NY 10032, USA.


In 2001, Maryland's court of appeals was asked to decide whether researchers at Johns Hopkins University had engaged in unethical research on children. During the 1990s, Johns Hopkins's Kennedy Krieger Institute had studied 108 African American children, aged 6 months to 6 years, to find an inexpensive and "practical" means to ameliorate lead poisoning. We have outlined the arguments in the case and the conundrum faced by public health researchers as they confront new threats to our health from environmental and industrial insults. We examined the case in light of contemporary public health ideology, which prioritizes harm reduction over the historical goals of prevention. As new synthetic toxins-such as bisphenyl A, polychlorinated biphenyls, other chlorinated hydrocarbons, tobacco, vinyl, and asbestos-are discovered to be biologically disruptive and disease producing at low levels, lead provides a window into the troubling dilemmas public health will have to confront in the future.

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