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The Secret History of Lead | The Nation

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The Secret History of Lead

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You can choose whether to smoke, but you can't pick the air you breathe, even if it is contaminated by lead particles from automobile exhaust. Seventy-five years ago, well-known industrialists like GM's Alfred Sloan and Charles Kettering (remembered today for having founded the prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center) and the powerful brothers Pierre and Irénée du Pont added to their substantial fortunes and did the planet very dirty by disregarding the common-sense truth that no good can come from burning a long-known poison in internal-combustion engines.

Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute. Follow-ups:
"Amplification," June 19, 2000 and letters exchanges: "Lead--Balloons and Bouquets," May 15, and "Lead-Letter Office," July 3, 2000.

About the Author

Jamie Lincoln Kitman
Jamie Lincoln Kitman, New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine, won an investigative reporting award from...

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General Motors must shoulder blame for a faulty product mix and a
stubborn resistance to the idea of single-payer health insurance, which
sent benefits costs soaring.

The stalling of the Republican-backed energy bill by a Democrat-led Senate filibuster was only a temporary reprieve.

The steady emergence of improved methodology and finer, more sensitive measuring equipment has allowed scientists to prove lead's tragic toll with increasing precision. The audacity of today's lead-additive makers' conduct mounts with each new study weighing in against them. Because lead particles in automobile exhaust travel in wind, rain and snow, which know no national boundaries, lead makers and refiners who peddle leaded gasoline knowingly injure not only the local populations using their product but men, mice and fish tens of thousands of miles distant.

GM and Standard Oil sold their leaded gasoline subsidiary, the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation, to Albemarle Paper in 1962, while Du Pont only cleaned up its act recently, but all hope to leave their leaded gasoline paternity a hushed footnote to their inglorious pasts. The principal maker of lead additive today the Associated Octel Company of Ellesmere Port, England) and its foremost salesmen (Octel and the Ethyl corporation of Richmond, Virginia) acknowledge what they see as a political reality: Their product will one day be run out of business. But they plan to keep on selling it in the Third World profitably until they can sell it no longer. They continue to deny lead's dangers while overrating its virtues, reprising the central tenets of the lead mythology chartered by GM, Du Pont and Standard lifetimes ago.

These mighty corporations should pay Ethyl and Octel for keeping their old lies alive. They'll need them, in their most up-to-the-minute and media-friendly fashion: Because of the harm caused by leaded gasoline they have been joined to a class-action suit brought in a circuit court in Maryland against the makers of that other product of lead's excruciating toxic reign: lead paint. Along with the makers of lead paint and the lead trade organizations with whom they both once worked in close concert, suppliers and champions of lead gasoline additives--Ethyl, Du Pont and PPG--have been named as defendants in the suit.

Though the number of cases of lead poisoning has been falling nationwide, the lead dust in exhaust spewed by automobiles in the past century will continue to haunt us in this one, coating our roads, buildings and soil, subtly but indefinitely contaminating our homes, belongings and food.

The Problem With Lead

Lead is poison, a potent neurotoxin whose sickening and deadly effects have been known for nearly 3,000 years and written about by historical figures from the Greek poet and physician Nikander and the Roman architect Vitruvius to Benjamin Franklin. Odorless, colorless and tasteless, lead can be detected only through chemical analysis. Unlike such carcinogens and killers as pesticides, most chemicals, waste oils and even radioactive materials, lead does not break down over time. It does not vaporize, and it never disappears.

For this reason, most of the estimated 7 million tons of lead burned in gasoline in the United States in the twentieth century remains--in the soil, air and water and in the bodies of living organisms. Worldwide, it is estimated that modern man's lead exposure is 300 to 500 times greater than background or natural levels. Indeed, a 1983 report by Britain's Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution concluded that lead was dispersed so widely by man in the twentieth century that "it is doubtful whether any part of the earth's surface or any form of life remains uncontaminated by anthropogenic [man-made] lead." While lead from mining, paint, smelting and other sources is still a serious environmental problem, a recent report by the government's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry estimated that the burning of gasoline has accounted for 90 percent of lead placed in the atmosphere since the 1920s. (The magnitude of this fact is placed in relief when one considers the estimate of the US Public Health Service that the associated health costs from a parallel problem--the remaining lead paint in America's older housing--total in the multibillions.)

Classical acute lead poisoning occurs at high levels of exposure, and its symptoms--blindness, brain damage, kidney disease, convulsions and cancer--often leading, of course, to death, are not hard to identify. The effects of pervasive exposure to lower levels of lead are more easily miscredited; lead poisoning has been called an "aping disease" because its symptoms are so frequently those of other known ailments. Children are the first and worst victims of leaded gas; because of their immaturity, they are most susceptible to systemic and neurological injury, including lowered IQs, reading and learning disabilities, impaired hearing, reduced attention span, hyperactivity, behavioral problems and interference with growth. Because they often go undetected for some time, such maladies are particularly insidious. In adults, elevated blood-lead levels are related to hypertension and cardiovascular disease, particularly strokes, heart attacks and premature deaths. Lead exposure before or during pregnancy is especially serious, harming the mother's own body, affecting fetal development and frequently leading to miscarriage. In the eighties the EPA estimated that the health damages from airborne lead cost American society billions each year. In Venezuela, where the state oil company sold only leaded gasoline until 1999, a recent report found 63 percent of newborn children with blood-lead levels in excess of the so-called safe levels promulgated by the US government.

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