Herbert Needleman

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Herbert Leroy Needleman (December 13, 1927 – July 18, 2017), known for research studies on the neurodevelopmental damage caused by lead poisoning, was a pediatrician, child psychiatrist, researcher and professor at the University of Pittsburgh,[1] an elected member of the Institute of Medicine, and the founder of the Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning (later known as the Alliance for Healthy Homes, it has since merged with the National Center for Healthy Housing). Dr. Needleman played a key role in securing some of the most significant environmental health protections achieved during the 20th century, which resulted in a fivefold reduction in the prevalence of lead poisoning among children in the United States by the early 1990s. Despite engendering strong resistance from related industries, which made him the target of frequent attacks, Needleman persisted in campaigning to educate stakeholders, including parents and government panels, about the dangers of lead poisoning. Needleman has been credited with having played the key role in triggering environmental safety measures that have reduced average blood lead levels by an estimated 78 percent between 1976 and 1991. He died in Pittsburgh in 2017.[2]

Education and faculty appointments[edit]

Needleman earned his BS from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania in 1948, and his MD from the University of Pennsylvania in 1952. He was Jewish.[3] He trained in Pediatrics at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and served as Chief Resident, he completed a fellowship in Pediatric Cardiology and Rheumatic Fever through the National Institutes of Health. After Practicing family Pediatrics in Philadelphia and Neonatology at Pennsylvania Hospital, Dr. Needleman completed a residency in psychiatry at Temple University Health Sciences Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From 197 to 1972, he was an assistant professor of psychiatry at Temple University and at Harvard University Medical School, in Boston, Massachusetts from 1972 to 1981, Since 1981, he has been a professor of child psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Lead poisoning research[edit]

In the 1970s, Needleman conducted a study at Harvard Medical School that yielded strong evidence that lead, even at very low levels, can affect a child's IQ. By measuring levels of lead in children’s teeth, Needleman provided the first evidence that low level lead exposure not only reduces IQs, but also shortens attention spans and delays acquisition of language proficiency. In studies that followed, he determined that lead poisoning had long term implications for a child's attentiveness, behavior, and academic success.

In 1979, Needleman began the first large scale study of intelligence and behavior in children with no outward signs of lead poisoning. His research showed that lead exposure is associated with increased risk for failure to graduate from high school and for reading disabilities. His research involved testing the concentration of lead in bones of 194 juveniles, between the ages of twelve and eighteen, who had been convicted in the Allegheny County Juvenile Court, and 146 students in regular high schools in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania who did not have behavioral problems. In 1996, findings from the research, reporting on the physical and behavioral problems caused by leaded gasoline and lead paint while linking lead exposure to anti-social behavior, were published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The study found delinquent children were four times more likely to have elevated concentrations of lead in their bones. According to Needleman, "Lead is a brain poison that interferes with the ability to restrain impulses. It's a life experience which gets into biology and increases a child's risk for doing bad things."

After extensive scientific review, Needleman's findings were instrumental in convincing the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to issue guidelines for the diagnosis and management of lead poisoning in children, in goading the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to mandate the removal of lead from gasoline and inducing the Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban lead from interior paints. Needleman's research also helped cause the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to remove lead from thousands of housing units across the US.

Needleman designed the first forward study of lead exposure during gestation, and showed that such exposure is associated with cognitive deficits later in life. His most recent research has shown that boys with high levels of lead concentrated in their bones are more likely to develop aggressive or delinquent behavior, such as bullying, vandalism and shoplifting.

Raising Children Toxic Free[edit]

In their book, Raising Children Toxic Free: How to Keep Your Child Safe from Lead, Asbestos, Pesticides, and Other Environmental Hazards (1996), Needleman and Philip J. Landrigan offer advice for parents and physicians on how to evaluate and minimize toxic exposure risks, which include lead, asbestos, pesticides, and other toxins. They also address practical means for ensuring community compliance with existing laws

Committee of Responsibility[edit]

While an associate professor at Temple University's School of Medicine, Needleman was the chairman of the Committee of Responsibility (COR), throughout its existence between 1966 and 1974.[2] COR, which sought to help civilians injured in the Vietnam War, was composed of medical personnel, scientists, clergymen, and citizens concerned about American involvement. In its efforts to assist injured Vietnamese children shelters were set up in Berkeley, California and Boston, Massachusetts, both called Vietnam House, and another in Saigon, where paraplegic children could be cared for and rehabilitated in their own country.

Allegations of scientific misconduct[edit]

Needleman's scientific methodology had long been challenged by Dr. Claire Ernhart, who has criticized it as not adequately controlling for confounding variables, and being subject to the multiple comparisons problem. In 1983 when the EPA was reviewing its air quality standards, it rejected the results of both Needleman's and some of Ernhart's scientific work on the subject. Needleman challenged this criticism and after giving him more money to reanalyze the data, the EPA reversed its position, and adopted his conclusions in 1986.[4]

In 1990, a Superfund (industrial pollution cleanup) case was brought against the owners of a defunct lead mill in Utah, where houses had been built on the land where the tailings had been deposited.[5] The state hired Needleman as an expert witness, and the corporations in their defence turned to Ernhart and psychologist Sandra Scarr from the University of Virginia. Ernhart and Scarr gained access to the raw data for a day, after which they had to leave after a federal government lawyer attempted to have them sign a gagging order preventing them from discussing the data in public. Based on what she saw of the printouts, Scarr concluded that Needleman had discarded potentially significant explanatory variables after his first analysis failed to show a lead-IQ relationship until "he got the results he wanted".[4] The two charged Needleman through the National Institute of Health with scientific misconduct.[6]

Needleman says that the case against him was made by a law firm from Philadelphia who refused to name the company who was paying them.[5] He says that against the wishes of his university, he fought to have his case held in public and was eventually exonerated.[5] According to Scarr: "Eventually, Needleman was found guilty of misrepresentation and had to retract research reports in the journals that published them."[7] However, no retractions were issued, only mild corrections. According to environmental psychology professor Colleen F. Moore, Scarr and Ernhart "found a published graph that was slightly in error, and Needleman eventually published a correction".[8] The lawsuit and subsequent inquiry remain controversial; according to philosopher of science Clark N. Glymour, "Scarr and Ernhart are sometimes dismissed as tools of the lead industry, but I know of no evidence that they were other than sincere." Glymour however thinks that Scarr and Ernhart were wrong on their methodological findings.[9]

EPA scientist Joel Schwartz told Newsweek in 1991 that a reanalysis of Needleman's data incorporating the factor of age, which had been excluded, "found essentially the identical results". By that point, Needleman's research had been superseded by newer research used to justify even lower limits.[6]


For his research he has been honored with the following awards(among others):

The first scientific studies award of the academy of Association For Children With Learning Disabilities.
The Sarah Poiley Medal Of the New York Academy of Sciences.
The Charles Dana Award For Pioneering Achievement In Public Health.
The National Wildlife Federation Conservation Science Award.
The University of Pittsburgh Chancellor's Award For Public Service.
The 2nd Annual Heinz Award in the Environment (1996)[10]
The Physician's Forum Edward K. Barsky Award.
The Society For Occupational And Environmental Health Vernon Houk Award.
Muhlenberg College's John V. Shankweiler Award.
The University of Pennsylvania's Distinguished Graduate Award.
The Prince Mahidol Award Of Thailand.


  • The Case of Deborah Rice: Who Is the Environmental Protection Agency Protecting?, Needleman HL (2008) PLoS Biol 6(5): e129 doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0060129
  • 1994, Herbert L. Needleman, Philip J. Landrigan, Raising Children Toxic Free: How to Keep Your Child Safe from Lead, Asbestos, Pesticides, and Other Environmental Hazards, Farrar Straus & Giroux, Gordonsville, Virginia, ISBN 0-374-24643-2
  • 1994, Herbert L. Needleman, David C. Bellinger, Prenatal Exposure to Toxicants: Developmental Consequences, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
  • 1991, Herbert L. Needleman (editor), Human Lead Exposure CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida, ISBN 0-8493-6034-X
  • 1980, Herbert L. Needleman, Low level lead exposure: The clinical implications of current research, ISBN 0-89004-455-4
  • Needleman, H. L. (1998). Childhood lead poisoning : The promise and abandonment of primary prevention. American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 88, No. 12 (December 1998).


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ http://www.wftv.com/news/national-news/ap-top-news/doctor-who-linked-kids-lead-exposure-to-health-issues-dies/566162612
  3. ^ https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/herbert-l-needleman-pediatrician-who-exposed-dangers-of-lead-poisoning-dies-at-89/2017/07/20/3bc644ba-6d53-11e7-b9e2-2056e768a7e5_story.html
  4. ^ a b "Get-the-lead-out Guru Challenged" (PDF). Science. 23 August 1991. Archived from the original (PDF) on 6 April 2016.
  5. ^ a b c "Tech Nation - Lead Poisoning in Children". ITConversations. 15 December 2008.
  6. ^ a b "Lead, Lies and Datatape". Newsweek. 16 March 1991.
  7. ^ O'Connell AN (2001).Models of Achievement: Reflections of Eminent Women in Psychology, Vol.3. London: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. pp. 107-108 (Autobiographical Perspectives)
  8. ^ Colleen F. Moore (2009). Children and Pollution: Why Scientists Disagree. Oxford University Press. p. 19. ISBN 978-0-19-538666-0.
  9. ^ Clark N. Glymour (2010). Galileo in Pittsburgh. Harvard University Press. pp. 56–63. ISBN 978-0-674-05103-4.
  10. ^ The Heinz Awards, Herbert Needleman profile
  • Rampton, S., Stauber, J., Trust Us, We're Experts! 2001, p 95-7

Further reading[edit]

  • Needleman H. "Standing up to the lead industry: an interview with Herbert Needleman. Interview by David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz." Public Health Rep. 2005 May-Jun;120(3):330-7. PMID 16134577 PDF
  • Denworth, L. (2009). Toxic Truth: A Scientist, A Doctor, and the Battle over Lead. Beacon Press. ISBN 9780807000328.
  • Clark N. Glymour (2010). Galileo in Pittsburgh. Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-05103-4.

External links[edit]