The Secret History of Lead | The Nation


The Secret History of Lead

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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.

The Conference Adjourns

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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America's automotive population was multiplying exponentially, yet the Surgeon General's conference spent six hours and forty-five minutes deliberating on what Yandell Henderson had prophetically called "probably the greatest single question in the field of public health that has ever faced the American public" and reached no conclusion. Instead, it voted unanimously on a motion by Dr. Matthias Nicoll, New York State Commissioner of Health, to place the question of tetraethyl lead in the hands of Cumming and a seven-member committee of experts to be appointed by him, with orders to report back by January 1, 1926. And it commended Ethyl for withdrawing its product while the question of its effect on the public health was still unsettled.

Awkwardly for Ethyl, soon after the conference ended but months before the Surgeon General's newly impaneled committee could complete its study, details emerged about eight more TEL-related deaths and more than 300 injuries at Du Pont's sinister Deepwater plant. Six square miles that lit up the sky at night, Deepwater was one of the country's most active ports, yet it was nowhere to be found on nautical maps. Often referred to publicly by Du Pont as a dye works, it was rather a complex of poison-gas works, producing phosgene and chlorine gases as well as the lethal benzol series. Deepwater had no legal government--just Du Pont and its private police force. Dismissing the deaths, a Du Pont spokesman said at the time, "It is a fact that we have a great deal of trouble inducing the men to be cautious. We have to protect them against themselves." (You can still see Deepwater today at the southern end of the New Jersey Turnpike, but it stopped producing TEL in the nineties.)

Happily for the du Ponts and the other lead interests, on January 19, 1926, the special committee appointed by Surgeon General Cumming found "no good grounds" for prohibiting the sale of Ethyl gasoline: "So far as the committee could ascertain all the reported cases of fatalities and serious injuries in connection with the use of tetraethyl lead have occurred either in the process of manufacture of this substance or in the procedures of blending and ethylizing."

The committee reviewed the evidence of studies it had conducted in Ohio on 252 workers exposed to lead in their occupations as chauffeurs and garage men. While the committee noted "a greater storage of lead in the bodies of those exposed to ethyl gasoline" and lead in the dust of garages dispensing ethyl, nothing conclusive could be established in the short time given to it. So, although the newspapers would miss the distinction--the New York Times, for instance, headlined it "Report: No Danger in Ethyl Gasoline"--the committee had merely concluded that TEL could be manufactured without the loss of life. It did not give tetraethyl lead a clean bill of health or settle the question of its effect on the public health. In fact, it cautioned:

It remains possible that if the use of leaded gasolines becomes widespread, conditions may arise very different from those studied by us which would render its use more of a hazard than would appear to be the case from this investigation. Longer experience may show that even such slight storage of lead...may lead eventually in susceptible individuals to recognizable or to chronic degenerative diseases of a less obvious character....
      In view of such possibilities the committee feels that the investigation begun under their direction must not be allowed to lapse.... The vast increase in the number of automobiles throughout the country makes the study of all such questions a matter of real importance from the standpoint of public health, and the committee urges strongly that a suitable appropriation be requested from Congress for the continuance of these investigations under the supervision of the Surgeon General of the Public Health Service.

While proposing that the sale of leaded gasoline should go forward, regulated by the Surgeon General, the committee passed a resolution calling on the Public Health Service to conduct further studies. Separately, the president of the Society of Automotive Engineers called for additional investigations concerning lead's possible relation to sterility. And the American Chemical Society, which might have been supposed a lockstep supporter of Ethyl, proposed around this time that increased governmental regulation over chemicals "is a subject worthy of further discussion."

Thus, even the industry's paid scientists were uneasy about the use of lead in gasoline. Yet none of these calls for further government action were ever acted upon, and it was this failure that gave Ethyl its opening. The PHS never conducted the studies, the Surgeon General never lobbied Congress to pay for them and, for the next forty years, all research on TEL's health impact would be underwritten by GM, Standard Oil, Du Pont, Ethyl and lead-industry trade associations. With the credulity-stretching statement of an Ethyl spokesman that the only purpose of GM and Standard Oil--"two of the largest units in the automobile and oil industry"--was "to conserve a vital natural resource," the company welcomed the committee's report as total vindication. "We plan to resume operations," Ethyl announced without delay the day of the report's release. In May 1926, one year after the sale of TEL-laced gasoline was suspended, signs appeared in gas stations: "Ethyl is back."

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