LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News Volume 13 Number 3, May 2013, ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News (ISSN 1440-0561)
The Journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.
Editorial Team: Elizabeth O’Brien, Zac Gethin-Damon, Hitesh Lohani and Shristi Lohani

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Obituary: John F. Rosen, M.D., Leader in protecting children against lead poisoning dies at 77

By Joel Pounds, Systems Toxicology, Laboratory Fellow, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Richland, Washington 99352 USA

Dr. John F. Rosen, a pediatric metabolism expert who defined the fight against childhood lead poisoning in America, died on December 7, 2012 in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was 77.

After graduation from Harvard College, John completed medical school at the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons.  John began his research and medical career working on the hormonal regulation of bone minerals at the Rockefeller University. John moved professionally in 1969 to Montefiore Medical Center where he became Professor of Pediatrics and the Head of the Division of Environmental Sciences at The Children’s Hospital, which came to have the nation’s largest lead clinic, positions he held at his death.

John was raised in a household of social and medical activism. His parents, Dr. Samuel Rosen and Helen Rosen were substantially involved in the liberal and civil rights movements of the post-World War II period, from Henry Wallace’s campaign in 1948 to sheltering Paul Robeson after the Peekskill Riots. His father – an ear surgeon who invented the “Rosen Stapes” operation for addressing deafness – made many trips to China to train Chinese surgeons in this technique. His parents met Chou En Lai before the country was opened to Americans in 1972. Dr. Rosen broadened the family activism into the war on poverty by focusing on children. 

Dr. John Rosen began to see the harmful impact of metal toxicity in children. His research and clinical practice particularly began to focus on the effects of metal poisoning on underprivileged children living in New York City’s substandard housing. In the 1970’s, John’s work focused increasingly on pediatric lead poisoning, and he became, as The New York Times recognized in 1992, a national authority on lead hazards for children. His research, and that of others, increasingly demonstrated that traditional measures of lead exposure in children were too lenient and must be lowered to mitigate the deleterious impact of lead poisoning on cognitive development.

In 1985 and in 1991, John chaired the U.S. Centers for Disease Control Committee on Preventing Childhood Lead Poisoning, which established new and lower national guidelines for the definition of lead poisoning, its treatment and prevention. Dr. Rosen also worked with numerous other National Advisory Committees, including The National Academy of Science and the National Research Council Committee in their report on Low Level Lead Exposure in Susceptible Populations.  John spoke at innumerable national and international conferences and published over one hundred studies. The Society of Toxicology awarded John the Arnold J. Lehman prize in recognition of his major contribution to the regulation of environmental lead exposure to protect children.

John was funded continuously for twenty-two years by the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) to investigate the cellular and molecular mechanisms of lead metabolism in bone cells and the metal binding protein osteocalcin. His basic research contributions were further recognized by the NIH by a MERIT award. In addition, John was a pioneer of the use of x-ray fluorescence to measure bone lead levels as a measure of cumulative lead exposure. 

John’s passion for protecting and aiding children was legendary, and often led to contentious situations. When he was not serving as an expert for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in toxic waste lawsuits, he would take the EPA and other governmental agencies to task for not doing enough to protect children’s health. For example, in 1992, when parents at Public School 3 in Manhattan were concerned about the school’s peeling paint, they reached out to Dr. Rosen, who termed the school a “toxic dump.” At a press conference, he pulled paint chips off the wall and his efforts led to the school’s widely publicized – and controversial  – closure and clean-up.

One of Dr. Rosen’s proudest accomplishments was the establishment of Montefiore’s Safe House for Lead Poisoning Prevention, the nation’s first continuously operating house for victims of lead poisoning and their families. Families stay at the Safe House during the de-leading renovation of their own homes. At the Safe House, a comprehensive approach to addressing lead problems is provided for families who receive education through workshops in nutrition, family budgeting, and parenting skills. Including not just temporary shelter in a lead-free environment but also education and family support.

In addition to his work in the United States, Dr. Rosen was instrumental in setting up lead poisoning monitoring programs internationally. He travelled to Nicaragua to address the problem of leaded gasoline. He worked with the Shanghai Children’s Medical Center and the Shanghai Second Medical School for 28 years, from 1982 to 2010, to develop lead poisoning treatment centers in China. Mere months before his death, John was in Shanghai, to push for more substantial regulations on the lead mining and battery recycling industries to protect Chinese children.

In recent years, John shifted focus to educating parents, pediatricians, obstetricians, community groups, Head Starts etc. on various aspects of excessive exposure to lead during pregnancy and during childhood. Part of John’s legacy is a New York State funded Lead Poisoning Resource Center with responsibility for outreach to about 100 miles north of New York City. The Lead Team consists of Dr. Morri Markowitz (Prof. of Pediatrics), Dana Politis, Kate Henry, Mary Martinez, Fausto Ramos, Nancy Redkey and Mei Li. This Center performs about 50,000 blood lead analyses each month.

Dr. Rosen died in Greenwich after a four-year battle with cancer. He was the son of Helen Rosen and Dr. Samuel Rosen, a renowned ear surgeon. He is survived by his wife, Margaret Hiatt of Stamford, Connecticut, his three children, Carlo Rosen, M.D., Ellis Lesser, and Emily Reilley, and nine grandchildren, and many colleagues and friends across the world.

Editor’s note: Thanks so much to Joel Pounds for the above article for LEAD Action News. A shorter version of it was also published in Greenwich Time on December 18, 2012 at http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/greenwichtime/obituary.aspx?pid=161793815#fbLoggedOut . Readers may also want to read the obituary published on December 17, 2012, on page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: Dr. John Rosen, 77; Pushed to Prevent Lead Poisoning

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