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Dr Herbert Needleman: A crusader’s lifelong battle to save children from lead poisoning

Lead levels found in children have dropped by over 90 percent since Needleman first published his findings in the 1970s

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Dr. Herbert Needleman. Thanks to his work, we now know that even in small amounts, lead can cause children long-term learning disabilities and IQ deficits. Image source: www.wbur.org
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  • In the 1950s, lead was used everywhere- paint, pipes, toys, and gasoline
  • Dr. Needleman used children’s baby teeth to explore the lead levels
  • He now has Alzheimer’s and is not able to speak on his own behalf

Back in 1957, Dr. Herbert Needleman went to see was on his way to see a 3-year-old patient at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, when he first came across a case of lead poisoning. In Pipes, paint, gasoline and toys- lead was everywhere and options to escape it were too little.

The girl child he treated was probably poisoned by lead paint or dust at home, making it difficult for her and her mother to go back there. The girl’s mother was a single parent and therefore, it was difficult for her to afford another place.

Thus, Herbert decided to devoted his time and career to fight against odds and find a solution to lead poisoning that affected many during his time. His son, Josh Needleman, referenced a time when he was in a boat with his father. They passed some teenagers who were smoking and throwing rocks at a duck. Dr. Needleman immediately yelled at the teens to cease throwing rocks at the defenseless creature. Josh says the teenagers stopped, most likely because they were so startled. Dr. Needleman defended a duck, now you can only imagine how passionately he felt about standing up for children.

Dr. Alan Leviton (L), Dr. Herbert Needleman, and Dr. David Bellinger (R) at the Charles A. Dana Foundation Award ceremony in 1989. Needleman won an award for his research on lead poisoning. (Photo courtesy of David Bellinger). Image source: newsworks.org
Dr. Alan Leviton (L), Dr. Herbert Needleman, and Dr. David Bellinger (R) at the Charles A. Dana Foundation Award ceremony in 1989. Needleman won an award for his research on lead poisoning. (Photo courtesy of David Bellinger). Image source: newsworks.org

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The children who suffered with lead poisoning were treated as best as they could be. They were advised by the doctors to simply move out of the houses they were living in due to the lead levels found in paint at the time. The children suffered from many symptoms including abdominal pain and cramps, aggressive behavior, constipation, mental impairment, and many more.

Symptoms of lead poisoning. Wikimedia Commons.
Symptoms of lead poisoning. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Dr. Needleman conducted a study examining the effects that lead had on children. He used children’s baby teeth to explore the lead levels. In 1979, the study was published, and the results caused an international debate. In an interview with with Bill Moyers which aired on PBS, Needleman said, “[children] who had lead in their teeth, but who had never been identified as having any problems with lead, had lower IQ scores, poorer language function, and poorer attention.” These findings were controversial because companies who made lead products did not want to take the blame for unintentionally poisoning children. These companies claimed that those results are due to family life and education.

In the 1980’s, the government was working hard to wean lead out of gasoline and Needleman’s findings sped the process up. In 1991 Dr. Needleman testified in support of the bill to remove lead from households, “There is a broad consensus on the part of everybody except the lead industry and its spokesmen that lead is extremely toxic at extremely low doses.” This did not go over well with landlords or realtors, and the bill was not passed.

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As a follow up, in 1992, Congress passed that Residential Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act. The act required landlords and others to disclose to customers any information regarding lead paint in the home, apartment or building they were viewing.

On the other end, scientists were working feverishly to prove that Needleman was guilty of scientific misconduct. The University of Pittsburgh, where Dr. Needleman worked, investigated for a year and found no proof of scientific misconduct.

Although lead levels found in children have dropped by over 90 percent since Needleman first published his findings in the 1970s, the government has stopped trying to eliminate lead completely. Meaning, there are still children who go to the doctor’s office with lead in their blood. These doctors are still left with little to help the children as any amount of lead found in the blood is extremely dangerous.

-by Abigail Andrea, an intern at NewsGram. Twitter: @abby_kono

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Ethical Dispute Erupts Over Euthanasia Rules

Although euthanasia has been legal in Belgium since 2002 and has overwhelming public support, critics have raised certain concerns

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An Euthanasia machine, should be used by those who want to use it. Wikimedia Commons
An Euthanasia machine, should be used by those who want to use it. Wikimedia Commons
  • Euthanasia has always been a controversial topic
  • Belgium is one of the few countries where the practice is allowed
  • However, despite that many citizens can’t avail the right to take over their own life

A disputed case of euthanasia in Belgium, involving the death of a dementia patient who never formally asked to die, has again raised concerns about weak oversight in a country with some of the world’s most liberal euthanasia laws.

The case was described in a letter provided to The Associated Press, written by a doctor who resigned from Belgium’s euthanasia commission in protest over the group’s actions on this and other cases.

Euthanasia is legal in Belgium since 2002. Wikimedia Commons
Euthanasia is legal in Belgium since 2002. Wikimedia Commons

Some experts say the case as documented in the letter amounts to murder; the patient lacked the mental capacity to ask for euthanasia and the request for the bedridden patient to be euthanized came from family members. The co-chairs of the commission say the doctor mistakenly reported the death as euthanasia.

Although euthanasia has been legal in Belgium since 2002 and has overwhelming public support, critics have raised concerns in recent months about certain practices, including how quickly some doctors approve requests to die from psychiatric patients.

Dispute revealed

The AP revealed a rift last year between Dr. Willem Distelmans, co-chair of the euthanasia commission, and Dr. Lieve Thienpont, an advocate of euthanasia for the mentally ill. Distelmans suggested some of Thienpont’s patients might have been killed without meeting all the legal requirements. Prompted by the AP’s reporting, more than 360 doctors, academics and others have signed a petition calling for tighter controls on euthanasia for psychiatric patients.

Also Read: 3 Cups of Coffee a day may Prevent you from Premature Death

Euthanasia — when doctors kill patients at their request — can be granted in Belgium to people with both physical and mental health illnesses. The condition does not need to be fatal, but suffering must be “unbearable and untreatable.” It can be performed only if specific criteria are fulfilled, including a “voluntary, well-considered and repeated” request from the person.

The AP revealed a rift last year between Dr. Willem Distelmans, co-chair of the euthanasia commission, and Dr. Lieve Thienpont, an advocate of euthanasia for the mentally ill. Distelmans suggested some of Thienpont’s patients might have been killed without meeting all the legal requirements. Prompted by the AP’s reporting, more than 360 doctors, academics and others have signed a petition calling for tighter controls on euthanasia for psychiatric patients.

Dr. Lieve Thienpont is an advocate of euthanasia for the mentally ill. VOA
Dr. Lieve Thienpont is an advocate of euthanasia for the mentally ill. VOA

The AP revealed a rift last year between Dr. Willem Distelmans, co-chair of the euthanasia commission, and Dr. Lieve Thienpont, an advocate of euthanasia for the mentally ill. Distelmans suggested some of Thienpont’s patients might have been killed without meeting all the legal requirements. Prompted by the AP’s reporting, more than 360 doctors, academics and others have signed a petition calling for tighter controls on euthanasia for psychiatric patients.

Euthanasia — when doctors kill patients at their request — can be granted in Belgium to people with both physical and mental health illnesses. The condition does not need to be fatal, but suffering must be “unbearable and untreatable.” It can be performed only if specific criteria are fulfilled, including a “voluntary, well-considered and repeated” request from the person.

But Belgium’s euthanasia commission routinely violates the law, according to a September letter of resignation written by Dr. Ludo Vanopdenbosch, a neurologist, to senior party leaders in the Belgian Parliament who appoint members of the group.

The most striking example took place at a meeting in early September, Vanopdenbosch wrote, when the group discussed the case of a patient with severe dementia who also had Parkinson’s disease. To demonstrate the patient’s lack of competence, a video was played showing what Vanopdenbosch characterized as “a deeply demented patient.”

The patient, whose identity was not disclosed, was euthanized at the family’s request, according to Vanopdenbosch’s letter. There was no record of any prior request for euthanasia from the patient.

After hours of debate, the commission declined to refer the case to the public prosecutor to investigate whether criminal charges were warranted.

Euthanasia should be allowed to die when they want to. VOA
Euthanasia should be allowed to die when they want to. VOA

Vanopdenbosch confirmed the letter was genuine but would not comment further about details.

Palliative sedation

The two co-chairs of the euthanasia commission, Distelmans and Gilles Genicot, a lawyer, said the doctor treating the patient mistakenly called the procedure euthanasia, and that he should have called it palliative sedation instead. Palliative sedation is the process of drugging patients near the end of life to relieve symptoms, but it is not meant to end life.

“This was not a case of illegal euthanasia but rather a case of legitimate end-of-life decision improperly considered by the physician as euthanasia,” Genicot and Distelmans said in an email.

Vanopdenbosch, who is also a palliative care specialist, wrote that the doctor’s intention was “to kill the patient” and that “the means of alleviating the patient’s suffering was disproportionate.”

Though no one outside the commission has access to the case’s medical records — the group is not allowed by law to release that information — some critics were stunned by the details in Vanopdenbosch’s letter.

Also Read: Is the Jain practice of Sallekhana really suicide?

“It’s not euthanasia because the patient didn’t ask, so it’s the voluntary taking of a life,” said Dr. An Haekens, psychiatric director at the Alexianen Psychiatric Hospital in Tienen, Belgium. “I don’t know another word other than murder to describe this.”

Kristof Van Assche, a professor of health law at the University of Antwerp, wrote in an email the commission itself wasn’t breaking the law because the group is not required to refer a case unless two-thirds of the group agree — even if the case “blatantly disregards” criteria for euthanasia.

But without a request from the patient, the case “would normally constitute manslaughter or murder,” he wrote. “The main question is why this case was not deemed sufficiently problematic” to prompt the commission to refer the case to prosecutors.

Other problems

Vanopdenbosch, who in the letter called himself a “big believer” in euthanasia, cited other problems with the commission. He said that when he expressed concerns about potentially problematic cases, he was immediately “silenced” by others. And he added that because many of the doctors on the commission are leading euthanasia practitioners, they can protect each other from scrutiny, and act with “impunity.”

Vanopdenbosch wrote that when cases of euthanasia are identified that don’t meet the legal criteria, they are not forwarded to the public prosecutor’s office as is required by law, but that the commission itself acts as the court.

Patients suffering from psychological disorders should be allowed euthanasia. Pixabay
Patients suffering from psychological disorders should be allowed euthanasia. Pixabay

In the 15 years since euthanasia was legalized in Belgium, more than 10,000 people have been euthanized, and just one of those cases has been referred to prosecutors.

Genicot and Distelmans said the group thoroughly assesses every euthanasia case to be sure all legal conditions have been met.

“It can obviously occur that some debate emerges among members, but our role is to make sure that the law is observed and certainly not to trespass it,” they said. They said it was “absolutely false” that Vanopdenbosch had been muzzled, and they said they regretted his resignation. VOA