Herbert Needleman, M.D., a physician-scientist whose groundbreaking research on lead toxicity in children led to the removal of lead in consumer products, died July 18. The Philadelphia native was 89 years old.
Needleman knew in the 1970s that bone, rather than hair and fingernails, provided a more accurate measure of lead in the body, but performing bone biopsies on children was out of the question. That led to his ingenious idea to measure lead in children’s baby teeth after they had fallen out.
Using baby teeth collected from inner city and suburban children, he and his collaborators found that inner city children had five times as much lead in their teeth as their suburban counterparts. Further work determined that children with higher lead levels had lower IQ scores, as well as behavioral issues.
"Herb gave us a validated working model to reliably connect environmental exposure to a disease or health outcome," said William Suk, Ph.D., director of the NIEHS Superfund Research Program. "After he published his lead toxicity work, the National Academy of Sciences emerged with what is, in essence, the model he developed."
Needleman served on the Science Committee of the Children’s Environmental Health Network (CEHN), a national organization committed to protecting children from environmental health hazards and promoting a healthy environment. CEHN is a partner organization of the NIEHS Partnerships for Environmental Public Health (PEPH).
NIEHS and National Toxicology Program Director Linda Birnbaum, Ph.D., said Needleman was a giant in the scientific community and started his research at a time when many people were not paying attention to how substances in their surroundings could affect their lives.
"Needleman and other researchers like him were on the forefront of modern environmental research," Birnbaum said. "Children and, to a larger extent, scientists at NIEHS, continue to benefit from his work."
Standing his ground
When Needleman concluded that it was lead exposure, rather than race or ethnicity, that caused cognitive deficits and certain behavioral problems in children, various groups that had an economic interest in keeping lead in paint and gasoline publicly attacked him.
Needleman stood his ground and, in the end, he was exonerated and his work deemed scientifically sound. His findings, in part, led the U.S. government to ban lead from gasoline, a law that is credited with drastically reducing blood lead levels in American children.
"Herb believed what he was doing was right and true, so he kept on, regardless of what the industry and even some other scientists tried to do to him," Suk emphasized. "He demonstrated to young scientists that it takes perseverance and the scientific principle of carrying your work to its conclusion to link an exposure to a disease or heath outcome."
(Wendy Anson, Ph.D., is a contract writer for the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)