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A toxic history lesson

By Michael Schulder, CNN Senior Executive Producer
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Toxic chemicals in our homes
  • People have been assured that certain chemicals are completely safe, learned later they weren't
  • Lead, DDT were once in widespread use, embraced, without warnings
  • In "Toxic Childhood," CNN investigates chemicals in children before birth

Is enough being done to protect us from chemicals that could harm us? Watch "Toxic America," a special two-night investigative report with Sanjay Gupta, M.D., June 2 and 3 at 8 p.m. ET on CNN.

(CNN) -- Sometimes an old message can provide a fresh perspective.

A 1940s marketing film for DDT helped do just that for CNN producers as we began investigating the potential risks of toxic chemicals. In the hourlong special report "Toxic Childhood," Dr. Sanjay Gupta examines the large number of chemicals our children are exposed to -- even before they're born -- and assessed what we know and don't know about their impact on our children's health.

One of the many things we noticed in our investigation is that in the past, assurances that certain chemicals are completely safe have often turned out to be false.

Special Report: Toxic America

For example, lead. Lead was first put in gasoline in the 1920s because it was found to make engines run more smoothly. Lead took the pings out. And then we learned the price of a ping.

In "Toxic Childhood," you'll meet Dr. Phil Landrigan, who discovered that contrary to what we thought decades ago, lead, even in small amounts, can damage the brains of children. And so, we no longer put lead in our gasoline.

In our reporting, we stumbled upon a scene from the DDT film on an obscure Web page. It portrayed a housewife spraying -- inundating -- her home with the potent bug killer. It almost seemed like a parody.

We called around to track down the original. We contacted an agency in New York that has a pretty big archive. They hadn't heard of this one.

Then we called Duke University, which has its own archive. Nothing.

But someone at Duke told us about a collector near the university. A collector of old educational and institutional films. His name is Skip Elsheimer.

Elsheimer had the film. And he had the background. It was a 1947 production -- a Truman-era version of an infomercial. It was shown in department stores, in the housewares section.

"I started collecting films as a hobby," Elsheimer says. "I'd go to yard sales and school and government auctions. A lot of school systems were dumping their film."

For many years, Elsheimer, who studied computer science in college, collected these films in his spare time while he worked a variety of jobs. For example, he says he answered phones at a National AIDS hotline in the mid-'90s. That got him interested in old films about venereal disease, which you can find on his website along with about 23,000 other 16mm films.

At some point, the films took over. They are, says Elsheimer, "a look at what our fears and desires were at any given time."

In the case of the DDT film, it was about a desire we still have. To reduce the work it takes to keep our homes clean.

DDT has been illegal in the United States for nearly 40 years. With no threat of malaria, the risk was deemed too high.

That was not the view in 1947. A powerful bug killer in a simple spray pump would keep your house pest free -- at no risk to your health. DDT in your homes. Lead in your gas. Images from the past -- which raise a difficult question for today. What is the price of convenience?