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Remembering Herbert Needleman, M.D., Pioneering Childhood Lead Poisoning Researcher and Activist Who Influenced Over Four Decades of CLS’s Ground-Breaking Lead Poisoning Advocacy


Remembering Herbert Needleman, M.D., Pioneering Childhood Lead Poisoning Researcher and Activist Who Influenced Over Four Decades of CLS’s Ground-Breaking Lead Poisoning Advocacy

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We hail the life and accomplishments of Dr. Herbert Needleman, the psychiatrist and environment health activist whose research and advocacy influenced four decades of our CLS anti-childhood lead poisoning advocacy. Dr. Needleman’s work resulted in the banning of lead in gasoline and paint and a five-fold reduction in the prevalence of lead in children by the 1990s. He died at 89 in Pittsburgh on July 18, 2017

Born in Philadelphia and graduating from Penn Medical School in 1952, with training in pediatrics at CHOP and a psychiatry residence at Temple, he was the first to sample the loose teeth of young children to demonstrate the incidence of childhood lead poisoning, the “silent epidemic,” and its harmful impacts at even very low levels on reduced IQ’s of children and related reading delays and behavioral problems.

His groundbreaking studies of environmental toxins that he began from a North Philadelphia mental health clinic where he practiced and observed children with intellectual disabilities, combined with his passionate conscience, directly influenced the advocacy of Jonathan Stein and George Gould who were young attorneys at Community Legal Services in the late 60s and early 70s. CLS was the first legal aid program in the nation, and has remained one of a very few, to have pursued a broad range of childhood lead poisoning advocacy.  

With Dr. Needleman as an ally and adviser, our successful work included obtaining congressional passage of the Lead Paint Poisoning Prevention Act of 1971, the nation’s first lead poisoning federal legislation, which prohibited use of lead paint in federal housing. (Future enactments banned lead from paint and gasoline.) Stein remembers visiting with his colleague Gould then Congressman Bill Barrett, the veteran South Philadelphia Congressman who chaired an important housing subcommittee, at his district office one evening to seek the Congressman’s adoption and lead in the House for this ground breaking legislation.

Working with the Philadelphia Welfare Rights Organization (PWR0), then led by Roxanne Jones, who was to become the first African-American woman State Senator in the Legislature, we obtained the first infusion of federal Model Cities and then City funds to be used by the City Health Department for lead paint testing and housing abatement work in Philadelphia—the first City lead poisoning prevention program. This came immediately after a PWRO lead protest outside the offices of then Mayor Wilson Goode at City Hall.

In addition in 1972 Gould and Stein sued HUD and the Philadelphia Housing Authority, in the first litigation of its kind in the nation, to remove dangerous lead paint from homes HUD sold and tenants occupied in public housing. In early 1973 the federal court issued a preliminary injunction against HUD requiring them to remove lead based paint from homes in accordance with Philadelphia Health Department regulations before they are sold in Philadelphia and that the Philadelphia Health Department inspect the property to determine that the dwelling meets such standards.  The court ruled from the bench immediately following the hearing and held that, “The danger is immediate and continuing each day that HUD sells a house that contains lead based paint”. In denying HUD’s motion to vacate the injunction the Court further held, “To equate the admittedly real and grave danger of permanent brain damage to small children with the relatively modest additional cost of rehabilitating houses to free them from lead-based paint raises issues that no amount of rationalization or legal theory can justify on moral grounds.” In 1976 HUD agreed to settle the case in accordance with the preliminary injunction which was approved and entered as the order of the Court and continues today.

The case against the Philadelphia Housing Authority was settled in 1977 with a court order requiring them to inspect and abate lead on their properties and those they acquire in the future in accordance with the regulations of the Philadelphia Health Department. In addition, Gould was successful in a federal court case where a homeowner, who had purchased a HUD property in the late 60s from HUD and was sued by the City of Philadelphia to remove lead paint because her child had been lead poisoned. HUD was joined as a defendant and it removed the case to federal court which held that HUD violated the implied warrant of habitability by selling a home with lead-based paint.

Dr. Needleman asked Stein to contribute to a book he edited on lead poisoning and it appeared in 1980 with Stein’s chapter, "An Overview of the Lead Abatement Program Response to the Silent Epidemic," in Low Level Lead Exposure:  The Clinical Implications of Current Research.

In subsequent years, CLS’s lead advocacy continued under George Gould who worked with Philadelphia City Council to adopt numerous ordinances regarding lead-based paint. These have included preventing evictions when lead violations exist on a property and prohibiting the landlord from retaliating in any way against the tenant. A comprehensive lead disclosure ordinance was put into effect which also allows a tenant or purchaser of property to do a lead inspection and to rescind the lease or cancel the  purchase of the property. Landlords are now required to give tenants a lead safe certification when children 6 or under will reside in the property. More recently landlords are required to disclose the dangers of lead in water and the existence of a lead water line. Rasheedah Phillips, CLS’s current managing attorney for housing,  has served on a city lead advisory task force which has made several recommendations including extending the lead certification requirement to all tenants.

We thank Dr. Needleman for his leadership and advocacy, and as a long-time friend of CLS and our work, especially because he heroically bore repeated personal and professional  attacks from the lead industry for his efforts. His work and commitment stand untarnished today as models for professionals and citizenry alike still working for environmental justice and children’s health.


by Jonathan Stein, Senior Attorney, and George Gould, Senior Attorney


The New York Times published Dr. Needleman’s obituary on July 27, 2017,, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s on July 28th, .

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