Pediatrician, Researcher Remembered for Landmark Studies on Lead Poisoning

Herbert L. Needleman, known for his pioneering efforts that linked environmental lead exposure — even at low doses — to cognitive deficits in children, died in Pittsburgh on July 18 at an assisted living center. He was 89.

Needleman was a pediatrician and emeritus professor of psychiatry in the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine Departments of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, which he joined in 1981 after leaving Harvard University.  

Two years earlier, in 1979, he published a landmark study in the New England Journal of Medicine showing that Boston-area children with higher accumulations of lead also had, on average, five or six fewer IQ points than those with lower lead accumulations who were of the same neighborhood, ethnic background and economic status.

“That study really changed the whole way the world thinks about lead poisoning,” Philip Landrigan of Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, a longtime lead researcher who worked alongside Needleman, told Pitt Med magazine in 2001.

“He really made the world consider the possibility that subclinical exposure to environmental pollutants could have a serious societal impact,” said David Bellinger of Harvard Medical School in the same article. Bellinger and Needleman were also collaborators.

His tireless efforts transformed the lives of current and future generations.

Arthur S. Levine, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the Pitt School of Medicine

In 1996, Needleman conducted his first in-depth delinquency study in which he measured bone lead levels in children and collected reports of aggression and delinquency from the subjects, their parents and their teachers. The results of this study showed an association between lead and delinquency, providing evidence for effects beyond cognitive deficits.

“And the thing about lead toxicity is it’s completely preventable,” Needleman told Pitt Med.

Born in Philadelphia in 1927, Needleman received a bachelor’s degree from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pennsylvania, in 1948 and completed his medical degree in 1952 from the University of Pennsylvania. He also served in the Army and the Army Reserve, reaching the rank of captain, according to published obituaries.

In addition to his scientific work, he was a key figure in convincing the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to require that lead be taken out of gasoline. According to Landrigan, that movement decreased blood lead levels in children by 90 percent.

Needleman also pushed for lead to be removed from paint and for remediation of houses where lead paint was used.

“People say we can’t afford to do it. We can’t afford not to do it,” he told Pitt Med in 2001, explaining the cost of de-leading houses would mean avoiding even greater costs in terms of health care and education fees. "So, there are a lot of good reasons to do it: moral, ethical and practical reasons.”

Needleman was the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the University of Pittsburgh Chancellor's Award for Public Service and the Heinz Award, named in memory of the late U.S. Senator John Heinz of Pennsylvania.

“Herb Needleman was not only an outstanding researcher but also a passionate public health advocate who changed the way we understand the health effects of environmental exposures,” said Arthur S. Levine, Pitt’s senior vice chancellor for the health sciences and the John and Gertrude Petersen Dean of the Pitt School of Medicine. “His tireless efforts transformed the lives of current and future generations.”

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