Blanc de plomb. Story of a legal poison

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Blanc de plomb.

Histoire d’un poison légal

Judith Rainhorn

Judith Rainhorn, Blanc de plomb. Histoire d’un poison légal, Paris, Les Presses de Sciences Po, coll. « Académique », 2019, 372 p., ISBN : 9782724624359.

Compte rendu de Stéphane Héas

Traduction Arine Kassabian
University of Rennes 2

Référence électronique

Héas S., Kassabian (trad.) (2019). « Blanc de plomb. Histoire d’un poison légal », [En ligne] La Peaulogie 3, mis en ligne le 18 décembre 2019 , URL : http://lapeaulogie.fr/blanc-de-plomb-story-of-a-legal-poison/

The author demonstrates in the present work the obscurities and ambiguities behind the perceptibility vs. imperceptibility (p.15) of a poison: the lead carbonate also called « white lead » or simply “lead”, in the public sphere. She shows how the positions of actors can vary « between offense, denial, denunciation and accommodation » (p.16).

The author retains the attention of the readers on the long-term lead poisoning by using very evocative titles and subtitles. Despite a very old and indisputable demonstration of its toxicity, the development and use of lead has become massive since the nineteenth century, thus contributing to the interests of professionals (painters), industrialists (chemists) and even politicians (maintenance or development of employment, priority of income to health, etc.). This historical work also shows that the population concerned by lead poisoning do not constitute a homogeneous block, and may include lead-workers and building painters who have different public voices, collective organisations, and also divergent opinions and interests towards the use of lead. This makes the notion even more contemporary.

The story of white lead is a typical example asserting that the public attention (effective in reducing this poisoning) didn’t impose itself in a linear way: periods of resistance, forgetfulness, etc., have followed one another during the two centuries. Their evolution in France and Europe are presented and analysed throughout the seven chapters of this book. In « L’appropriation du poison (XVIIIème-1830) » ( » The appropriation of poison (XVIII-1830) »), the author exposes the political, industrial and scientific interests which have strongly promoted the production and use of French white lead. The complicity between the State authorities (the annals of public health, and particularly the public health committee « composed of more chemists and pharmacists than doctors », page 68) and some influential industrialists in Paris have, for instance, decreased the importance accorded to the use of this substance and, thus, diminished the preventive measures taken against the risks of the workers’ exposure. In « L’invention du saturnisme (1820-1860) (« The invention of lead poisoning (1820-1860) »), the author specifies how the health arguments were able to reverse the values between competing companies. Caring about the workers’ and employees’ health became an argument that held public attention. The author recalls that « the lead industries had the reputation of death places » (p.43). The reality is, indeed, a growth of the mortality rates among lead workers. Some doctors, employed in these companies, were direct witnesses of lead poisoning, while others, were witnessed its toxicity indirectly, through observations made in hospitals. Even the name of this intoxication has been remarkably diverse and confusing: « colic of potters », « colic of Poitiers », in Latin « painters (pictorum) », « du Poitou (pictonum) » (page 49). Above all, the productivist benevolence of health awareness will second, or even eliminate, Tanquerel’s thesis (1834) for many decades, even though this thesis clarified the aetiology of « lead or saturnine paralysis », which will, later on, be known as « lead poisoning ». The white lead substitute: the zinc oxide, will not succeed its commercial breakthrough because of its high price which « will not lend the monopoly of white lead until 1845″ (p.87). The chapter  « Les grammaires de l’opacité (1855-1900) » (« The Grammars of Opacity (1855-1900) ») emphasizes the almost complete silence, at least in the hygiene journals and in the reports of public health, concerning the toxicological risks of lead. A « pax toxicologica« , a real « accommodation to nuisances » extends over this half-century (p.119). Quoting Murphy, the author clarifies the mysteries of a « regime of imperceptibility » in the public sphere rather than a conspiracy of silence around this toxic. The organization of a leading workers’ association will allow the consideration of white lead’s production as a « non-hazardous » activity in the administrative sense of the term. In fact, the inefficiency of hygiene recommendations is evident throughout the nineteenth century. The conditions of production of white lead remain morbid. A true mystification of the « moderate use » of the toxic is implemented. Routes of lead intoxication (respiratory, gastric and epidermic) will gradually be discovered and asserted around 1900.

Rainhorn points out the almost non-existence of victims among the workers of the white lead (the saturnins, a word used in French only in masculine and not in feminine) throughout the nineteenth century. Rare archives, such as a petition made in 1853, or various facts have punctually highlighted the dangerousness of a makeup product called « white Venus » or « white Rachel » frequently used by actresses, or the customers of a bakery complaining about the use of limed wood to bake the bread. In spite of these few mentions, the collective denial was well harmonized. The rare statistics and numbers communicated by Dr J. Arnould in 1879 evoke, for instance, the « sanitary waste » of this or that factory: 5% per year appears as a good score, compared to twenty or thirty deaths per 100 workers of other factories (p. 170). Partial and confusing statistics will be criticized as « alarming » against white lead. Being treated in the hospital remained, during that period, reserved for the poorest populations, which is not the case of all painters. The obligation to report cases of lead poisoning in 1902 will improve the accuracy of population censuses. Above all, lead poisoning has a lasting effect on health (morbidity), and its mortality is even more difficult to measure. The invisibility of health issues was, at the time, related to the virile values ​​of the workers of white lead, constituting another cost of this working masculinity.

In « moment 1900 », the body at work becomes an object of public concern, in spite of an indifference of the Union authorities which were in the process of consolidation and of anti-capitalist demands, without any particular focus on this or that profession, but in the framework of a growing awareness to the responsibility of business leaders. The « massacre of the innocent », caused by the teratogenic effects of lead, is demonstrated more and more precisely, and especially from important miscarriages, stillbirths and premature deaths in the descendants of workers (229). Industrial resistance will gain time in parliamentary debates and especially in senatorial debates, where conservative and even falsified epidemiological data were presented in order to sell stocks of poisons. However, France is a pioneer in this fight against industrial pests. With the first world war, the application of the prohibition of white lead is slowed down. The post-conflict period will see international coordination unfold in terms of work. This internationalization of the lead’s question, among others, will maintain the opposition of the actors before the war: « poison advocates » (p.296) against the persons who prohibit or, at least, the proponents of a regulation and control of chemical compounds; the first supporting up to the economic cataclysm of the abandonment of lead in paintings. The international convention is not precisely prohibitionist, the production and the sale of white lead (to pottery for example) will continue according to the national conditions and the balance of power between the national actors. However, the painting sector is plural and the controls of the young labour inspectorate remain partial. At this time (as today?), the international organization of work proved to be of little weight against the States and the industrialists. In addition there is competition between the prohibition of poisons and the recovery from labour diseases.

The conviction of the employers involved in the asbestos business in France makes this underestimated professional risk reappear. Above all, the lead pollution of soils and buildings condenses its poisons decades later and is subject, at best, to regular state supervision. The poisoning continues therefore despite the almost complete abandonment of the use of certain substances such as white lead. Health and environmental justice has barely begun, according to the author, who has shown that the interaction of diverging interests considerably hampers the adoption of measures to ban the production, sale and use of products, measures that are negotiated and supposed to protect people…