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Get the lead out didn't always mean for soldiers to speed up during World War II. It meant removing lead from toothpaste tubes to make bullets.

John Burgart has this recollection of growing up in Greensboro during World War II.

"As a child I remember seeing barrels placed on South Elm Street filled with empty toothpaste tubes," he says in an email. "I asked my mother what was the purpose in collecting used toothpaste tubes and she replied, 'They are made of lead and we make bullets out of them.' Talk about doubled-edged lead poisoning."

Burgart's observation raises a question. Why aren't those children of World War II vintage handicaped today with lousy memories, attention deficit disorders and other disabilities that lead poisoning can cause.

Lead intake obviously hasn't lessened Burgart's memory. He's not dreaming. Toothpaste tube collecting was big in many cities during the war.

In those days, lead was not considered the evil ingredient as it is today, although even then some scientists warned of lead's possible harm to children.


One web site says with certainty the lead in toothpaste tubes mixed in with the Colgate, Pepsodent and Ipana.

Stephen Catlett, archivist at the Greensboro Historical Museum, found nothing in his files about toothpaste tube collecting in Greensboro, but he doesn't doubt Burgart's story. Many materials were collected here for recyling for the military.

Catlett found on the internet people whose recollections jive with Burgart's.

A woman in Norway, N.Y., said, "We all used to save our toothpaste tubes because they were made of lead. We used to put them into the collection that went into the trucks to be taken away."

She also remembers gathering milk weed pods - aaaaachooo. She was told the pods went into parachutes.

A person who lived in Haddonfield, N.J., during the war said, "We were told even to save empty toothpaste tubes because they were made of metal in those days."

Even mixed with lead, the toothpaste tasted better than the horse meat this same person ate during the war. It was either that or meatless suppers.

"It wasn't very good," the person writes. "It tasted like stringy pot roast."

Toward the end of the war, the need for lead forced toothpaste makers to find other materials. According to an on-line research paper, "Toothpaste - A Brief History," aluminum, paper and plastic combinations became substitutes in tubes.

It's not clear whether lead returned to tubes after the war, but eventually plastic was used to make all toothpaste tubes.

If you didn't brush your teeth during the war, you aren't out of woods.

According to a book, "A Short History of Nearly Everything," by Bill Bryson, lead was found in food cans and drinking water was stored in "lead-lined tanks." Lead was spread onto fruit as a pesticide, Bryson says.

Leaded gasoline, which was rationed during the war, remained in gas pumps for many years after the war.

As most Americans know, lead paint was common before, during and after the war. Plenty of houses remain with lead paint that could harm children if deterioration causes flaking.Campaigns to rid houses of lead paint are on-going today.

At one point during the 20th century, Bryson writes, "Hardly a product existed that didn't bring a little lead into consumers' lives."

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