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The Secret History of Lead | The Nation

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The Secret History of Lead

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In recent years, a new generation of academics has singled out Robert Kehoe as the father of a rule, or paradigm, of profound importance, one that was to govern American industry and its parade of hazardous products for much of the twentieth century. By relying on what Jerome Nriagu of the University of Michigan has called the cascading uncertainty rule ("There is always uncertainty to be found in a world of imperfect information"), the lead industry and makers and marketers of TEL gasoline additives were able to argue in 1925: "You say it's dangerous. We say it's not. Prove us wrong." (Or, as Nriagu prefers, "Show me the data.") They still do.

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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As a result, Ethyl had its cake and ate it, several times. If the company's substance checked out as safe, then it would have been shown to have behaved responsibly. If not, it would take an eternity to prove, during which time the company could keep challenging test results and calling for more data. "Both possible outcomes," the historian Alan Loeb has written, "accommodated Ethyl. The general public was dealt all the risk and Ethyl and its owners were insulated from responsibility. To the extent that there was a health consequence, the Kehoe rule placed the burden upon the public."

In the past fifty years, nuclear power, tobacco, chemical, asbestos, coal, pesticide and automobile interests have adopted strategies similar to the one developed by Kehoe. Clutching most of the technology and all of the research capital in their own hands, they'll say "Prove us wrong, and we'll change." But confronted with damning evidence, they'll repeatedly challenge the methodology of the studies or the bias of researchers. All of which takes time. When these defenses fail, the whole notion of extrapolating from test results on animals might be questioned. As Professor Herbert Needleman of the University of Pittsburgh has observed, because toxins are not tested on humans, this effectively means that no agent can ever be demonstrated as toxic to industry's satisfaction.

Today, application of the Kehoe Rule has special meaning, as multinational corporations seek to introduce myriad genetically engineered crops and products prior to rigorous independent scientific testing. Once again, the burden of proof is being subtly shifted to the doubters, with the entire world cast in the role of guinea pig. In 1925 Haven Emerson, a Columbia professor of public health and former New York health commissioner, said of the TEL experience, "Up to the present time we have almost invariably got our first inkling of a new industrial chemical hazard by some human catastrophe... it seems rather pitiable in a country of such wealth in means and knowledge that we had to wait for a series of human catastrophes to develop the demand for a series of animal experiments."

Lead Paint vs. Lead Gas

Working alongside Kehoe at first was the Lead Industries Association. Formed primarily to fight restrictions on the use of lead paint, the LIA was also ready to serve as a sort of all-purpose lead-issue obfuscator. Though it wouldn't fund much actual research, the LIA would underwrite the original studies at Harvard in the twenties that isolated a new pseudo-psychological malady named "pica," the so-called unnatural impulse of some small children, mostly nonwhite, to stick lead paint chips in their mouths.

Much to LIA's chagrin, Kehoe would break ranks with them on the subject of lead paint, judging their product indefensible in light of all small children's tendency to put things in their mouths. Coming from the lead-happy Kehoe, this was a grim diagnosis indeed. Happily for the doctor, in 1958 LIA and the former American Zinc Institute founded another industry advocacy group, the International Lead Zinc Research Organization, with an eye to promoting global use of the lead additive in fuel and protecting makers of cadmium, the toxic zinc relation often found in batteries. Kehoe and Ethyl would find a happier home at ILZRO, which would fund the occasional scientific study. Dr. Paul Mushak, visiting professor of pediatric toxicology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, told The Nation that the industry has tended to underwrite research toward the margins of relevant issues, so as to avoid discovering something it might not like.

Kehoe's split with LIA and the lead-paint camp was, oddly, beneficial for both parties. Ever since, the lead-paint and lead-gasoline interests have been able to point the finger at one another when assessing their own responsibility for the global lead-pollution problem, buying more time to sell their products and more time to distance themselves from potential liability.

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