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NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Environmental Researcher Needleman Mourned

Dr. Needleman

Dr. Herbert Needleman

Dr. Herbert Needleman, a physician-scientist who published groundbreaking research on lead toxicity in children, died July 18. The Philadelphia native was 89 years old and died of Alzheimer’s disease.

NIEHS and National Toxicology Program director Dr. Linda Birnbaum said Needleman, a long-time NIEHS grantee, 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 health research,” she said. 

Needleman, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, had the ingenious idea to measure lead in children’s baby teeth after they had fallen out, as an alternative to performing bone biopsies, which was out of the question. He and his collaborators found that inner-city children had 5 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 Dr. William Suk, 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, a national organization committed to protecting children from environmental health hazards. CEHN is a partner organization of the NIEHS Partnerships for Environmental Public Health.

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.—Wendy Anson

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