A cure for the ills caused by air pollution: Vitamin D in milk

Air pollution texts often made the note, but I’ve not seen it talked about much recently:  Air pollution in the U.S. (and England) was so bad in the first years of the 20th century that it actually shut out the sun, and an epidemic of rickets followed.

FSA photo of child in Jefferson, Texas, with rickets - Library of Congress

Child with rickets, son of relief client near Jefferson, Texas. This child has never talked though he is two years old. He has never received any medical attention. Lee, Russell, 1903-1986, photographer. CREATED/PUBLISHED 1939 Mar. More information about the FSA/OWI Collection is available at http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/pp.fsaowi; CALL NUMBER LC-USF34- 032719-D REPRODUCTION NUMBER LC-USF34-032719-D DLC (b&w film neg.)

Public health officials, clever devils, discovered a form of vitamin D that prevented rickets.  It turns out that humans manufacture vitamin D from cholesterol, using ultraviolet B from the sun.  So, when the sun was smokily eclipsed, rickets proliferated.

In an era when technical and legal tools were inadequate to clean up the air pollution, physicians, nutritionists and researchers struck on the idea of supplementing food with vitamin D — and that is how we come to have vitamin D-fortified milk today, and a lot less rickets.

I was happy to find a publication at the National Institutes of Health that relates this history, at least in part, “Solar Ultraviolet Radiation and Vitamin D:  A Historical Perspective,” by Kumaravel Rajakumar, MD, Susan L. Greenspan, MD, Stephen B. Thomas, PhD, and Michael F. Holick, MD, PhD, in American Journal of Public Health, October 2007, Vol 97, No. 10.

At the dawn of the 20th century, the expansive industrialization and urban migration in the major cities of western Europe and the northern United States set the stage for the high prevalence of rickets among infants residing in those polluted and “sunless” cities. Overcrowded living conditions in the big-city slums and tenements and the sunlight deprivation precipitated by atmospheric pollution from smoke and smog were responsible for a rickets epidemic.  Increased ozone concentration from industrial pollution and the haze and clouds from atmospheric pollution compromise vitamin D production by absorbing the UV-B photons essential for its synthesis.

*          *          *          *          *

Edwards Park states, “But for rickets vitamin D would not have been discovered. Its discovery was the secret to rickets; its use is essentially the therapy of that disease.” The discovery of vitamin D led to the eradication of the epidemic rickets of the early 20th century. Pioneering advances were made in the understanding of vitamin D and rickets from 1915 to 1935. The discovery of the synthesis of vitamin D by the irradiation of foods was the “jewel in the crown” of vitamin D discoveries. This discovery was a catalyst for the public health triumph against rickets. It became feasible to fortify and enrich milk and other foods with vitamin D to ensure that the general population was likely to consume sufficient vitamin D.

It’s a good article with detailed history of rickets, the search to find what turned out to be vitamin D, and the use of nutritional supplements to eradicate a nasty, crippling disease in children.  Happy to see it online.

Some of our greatest triumphs in science, technology and public health are too little known.  I am working on the history of technology and science, and particularly its wedding with social progressivism in the Progressive Age, part of a project I was fortunate to stumble into in the Dallas Independent School District funded by a Teaching American History Grant from the U.S. Department of Education.  Sadly, Republicans in Congress insisted on cutting those grants to improve teaching with greater emphasis on original sources and original documents.

More Americans, more American school kids, should know about the triumphs of public health and science.  Maybe highlighting some of those advances here can help another teacher somewhere else.


7 Responses to A cure for the ills caused by air pollution: Vitamin D in milk

  1. […] reflect some of the additional flow on effects of D deficiency in our modern society. We have more polluted, toxin loaded, highly vaccinated, and more sunshine depleted infancies since the 1970s-80s sun […]


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    My understanding of vitamin D metabolism is that if people eat plenty of fish or grass fed animal fats they can get sufficient amounts from dietary sources. It’s only when the diet is primarily grain and potatoes and they live inside or heavily clothed most of the year that rickets shows up.

    The difficulty is that in several spots on Earth — and in the first part of the 20th century, in pockets of working-class people in major cities worldwide — it was impossible to get a diet with sufficient vitamin D, the UV-irradiated stuff ready to go to work to make good bones. I saw a report of a study that claimed a minor uptick in rickets in kids in affluent America today — kids addicted to video games who neither consume enough milk or other vitamin D-rich foods (Mountain Dew doesn’t have any at all), nor get outside into the sunlight for more than the dash to the school bus in the morning and back in the afternoon.

    I think it’s interesting that so much of this public health work seems to have been done without government regulation from a national level. That’s another side issue I need to explore in more detail. In the early part of the century, people and institutions, including commercial institutions, often acted for the good of the population, without being beaten into submission. Not on all issues, of course.


  3. Well don’t you know conservatives hate health class.

    You know…that’s the class they teach sex ed in.


  4. Pangolin says:

    My mom at 76, still takes a spoon of cod liver oil daily to keep her vitamin D levels up. It seems to work; she’s still teaching yoga about ten hours a week.

    My understanding of vitamin D metabolism is that if people eat plenty of fish or grass fed animal fats they can get sufficient amounts from dietary sources. It’s only when the diet is primarily grain and potatoes and they live inside or heavily clothed most of the year that rickets shows up.

    If you’re a vegan you better strip down and go outside; even when it’s cold.


  5. Ellie says:

    I don’t think it’s just TX. There are so many things that I remember from school that are no longer taught here; the history of NY State for one. Perhaps general health lessons have also left the scene? I remember our teacher opining that rickets was probably what caused Tiny Tim’s lameness.


  6. Ed Darrell says:

    That’s not in the health or history TEKS in Texas, and so, no, it’s not taught in Texas.


  7. Ellie says:

    I remember learning about that back in grade school. Is the subject of health and public health no longer taught?


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