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The Secret History of Lead | The Nation

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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.

Ethylized Science

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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Dr. Robert Kehoe of the University of Cincinnati, Ethyl's chief medical consultant, would express the opinion following the inconclusive 1926 report of the Surgeon General's committee (of which he was a member) that there was no basis for concluding that leaded fuels posed any health threat whatsoever. And while it is true that tetraethyl lead's opponents could point in 1924 to no exact scientific test of leaded gasoline emissions as incontrovertible proof of their hazards, there was a large body of evidence, dating back 3,000 years, that lead is poison.

Though the principals must surely have been aware of this historical evidence, it will suffice to recap merely a few of the contemporaneous scientific descriptions of lead's poisonous effects. In 1910, for instance, Alice Hamilton completed a ground-breaking and widely reported study of the lead industries for the State of Illinois, finding pervasive worker poisoning and conditions markedly worse than in European industry. In 1914 Americans Henry Thomas and Kenneth Blackfan detailed pediatric lead-poisoning death in the case of a boy who ate white-lead paint bitten off a crib railing. By 1921, the year of Midgley's discovery of TEL as an octane-boosting gasoline additive, the weight of the evidence was such that America's National Lead Company, sworn enemy of the antilead movement, was forced to admit grudgingly that its product was indeed a poison, in all its many forms (e.g., carbonate of lead, lead oxides and sulfate and sulfide of lead). The following year, the League of Nations would recommend banning white-lead paints for interior use on health grounds, as many European countries had already done. Establishing a pattern of tolerance for this most dangerous element, the United States declined to adopt the league's resolution.

The bankruptcy of TEL supporters' medical opinion was exposed at the time by Yandell Henderson and others. Harvard's Dr. Edsall testified at the Surgeon General's conference:

For 100 years and more observations have been made as to the effect of having a noteworthy amount of lead dust around in any occupation.... It is not a question, then, whether there is or is not a hazard.... I am disposed to believe that the hazard is a noteworthy one. How severe I am not prepared to say. The only way in which one can determine how serious it is would be through a very large number of extremely carefully carried-out observations as to what the effects are upon a large number of human beings.

By 1928, emboldened by a refreshingly compliant government and TEL's effective victory before the Surgeon General, National Lead and St. Joseph's Lead would form the Lead Industries Association to take back the ground ceded with National Lead's 1921 admission. "Of late the lead industries have been receiving much undesirable publicity," LIA reminded its members, as if it had forgotten in the intervening years that its product was a deadly poison. For years to come, the LIA, on whose board Du Pont and Ethyl officers served, would carefully gather, fund, support and disseminate propaganda supporting its pro-lead views, fighting all who would stand in its way. This disinformation, along with the lack of an adequate regulatory framework and the expense and difficulty of scientifically proving lead's insidious impact--bought manufacturers of lead paint and lead gasoline more than fifty years of unjust deserts.

The Kehoe Rule

Ethyl president Earle Webb once listed Robert Kehoe as one of three men without whom Ethyl could not have done what it did, and surely this must be so. Hired by Kettering in 1924 on behalf of GM to study hazards of TEL manufacturing plants, the young toxicologist quickly demonstrated the unerring instinct for pleasing one's masters that guarantees one employment of a more lasting nature. In 1925 he was appointed chief medical consultant of the Ethyl Corporation and remained in the post until his retirement in 1958. But it was in Kehoe's day job, as the outspoken director of the Kettering Laboratory--founded with an initial $130,000 gift from GM, Du Pont and Ethyl at the University of Cincinnati, where the lead industry paid Kehoe's salary for half a century--that he really rose to the challenge of promoting TEL. Against Kehoe's lab and decades of its pseudo-science, the general and unfunded concerns of the public health community were doomed for close to fifty years.

As Kehoe told a Senate committee with rare accuracy in 1966, "at present, this [Kettering] Laboratory is the only source of new information on this subject [occupational and public health standards for lead] and its conclusions have a wide influence in this country and abroad in shaping the point of view and the activities, with respect to this question, of those who are responsible for industrial and public hygiene." Working on Ethyl's behalf and as a consultant to the lead industry until shortly before his death in 1992, at 99, Kehoe put in exceptionally good innings. (His lab would also certify the safety of the refrigerant Freon, subject of another environmentally insensitive GM patent that would earn hundreds of millions before it was outlawed.)

Summing up the findings of a lifetime, Kehoe told Congress that he and his colleagues "had been looking for 30 years for evidence of bad effects from leaded gasoline in the general population and had found none." The credibility of his research had already been undercut and would soon be destroyed. But for many years, Kehoe's findings had been vouched for by semi-private organizations, including the American Public Health Association and the American Medical Association. Although they never undertook to investigate or independently verify his findings, their lap-dog approvals served to bulk up the scholarship in a field that was sparsely scholared.

Kehoe's central belief--criticized by medical authorities from Yale, Harvard and Columbia at the Surgeon General's original 1925 conference and thoroughly discredited today, though still embraced by the lead-additive industry--was that lead appeared naturally in the human body; that the high blood-lead levels his test subjects exhibited were normal and healthy. In fact, independent researchers later realized, Kehoe's control patients--the ones who wouldn't be exposed to leaded gas in his studies--were invariably already saturated with lead, which had the effect of making exposed persons' high lead load appear less worrisome. Such later findings confirmed the assertions of Yandell Henderson and others who criticized Kehoe's methodology in 1925 before the Surgeon General's conference. Harvard's Dr. Edsall had reminded the Surgeon General, "In spite of what Dr. Kehoe has just said, I think that his work will have to be neglected for the reason that the finding of lead in such a large proportion of control people means that however carefully these observations were made there was something wrong technically."

Late in his career, Kehoe contended that lead levels in gasoline could--and should--be raised.

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