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.

Big Lead Fights Back

About the Author

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

Also by the Author

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.

Tetraethyl lead was no longer GM's concern. Nor was it the concern of other auto makers, who followed suit announcing that they too would adopt the catalyst to meet ever-tightening federal emissions standards. Du Pont and Ethyl, on the other hand--along with a ragtag bunch of cheapskate oilmen who hoped to avoid upgrading their refineries to produce unleaded gasoline of sufficiently high octane--still cared a lot about American sales of TEL. When the EPA launched the first of several halfhearted attempts to begin removing lead from gasoline, lead's corporate affinity group fought back with a ferocity that bespoke major arrogance and even greater desperation. No sooner had the EPA announced a scheduled phaseout, setting a reduced lead content standard for gasoline in 1974, than it was sued by Ethyl and Du Pont, who claimed they had been deprived of property rights. In that same year, a panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit set aside the EPA's lead regulations as "arbitrary and capricious."

Ethyl had argued that "actual harm" must be shown, not just "significant risk," before their product could be outlawed, and the panel agreed. That Ethyl could make the argument at all was a troubling reminder that the executive and legislative branches of the United States government had signally failed to heed the Surgeon General's committee's original request for funding in 1926 for more independent research, leaving the driving, scientifically speaking, to Robert Kehoe.

In 1976 the full United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit overturned the decision against the EPA, finding that "significant risk" was adequate foundation for the agency's action against lead and within its authority. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, a longtime Ethyl director when he was a Virginia corporate lawyer, didn't need to recuse himself, as the Court refused to hear an appeal brought by TEL makers Ethyl, Du Pont, Nalco and PPG, as well as the National Petroleum Refiners Association and four oil companies. Ethyl's excitable Blanchard lashed out, "The whole proceeding against an industry that has made invaluable contributions to the American economy for more than fifty years is the worst example of fanaticism since the New England witch hunts in the Seventeenth Century."

Fighting on the beaches and fighting on the seas, an impassioned Ethyl wasn't going to go down easy, urging a reprieve for leaded fuel at a 1979 meeting of the Petrochemical Energy Group. Soon after, the company's oil industry amigos would sound the alarm for a mysterious "octane crisis" on account of an alleged increase in competition for aromatics, crude oil components that are mainstays of the plastics and synthetics businesses, as well as unleaded gasoline octane boosters. To combat the crisis, they requested an EPA slowdown on the gradual phaseout of lead. The petrochemical industry--led by Du Pont, Monsanto and Dow--would simultaneously launch an intensive lobbying campaign to delay the scheduled lead phaseout, charging, in a reminiscent tack, that the newly discovered dearth of aromatics "threatens the jobs of the 14 million Americans directly dependent and the 29 million Americans indirectly dependent on the petrochemical industry for employment."

The ever-hopeful lead cabal's dreams were cruelly dashed in early 1982, after word leaked out of Vice President George Bush's Task Force on Regulatory Relief that the newly elected Reagan Administration planned to relax or eliminate the US lead phaseout. Recognizing its cue, Du Pont formally called upon the EPA to rescind all lead regulations. EPA Administrator Ann Gorsuch was only too pleased to comply, but she unwittingly launched a firestorm of bad publicity in advance of an announcement by telling a visiting refiner with a big mouth that she would not enforce violations of current lead limits because the regulations would soon be repealed. When Gorsuch's remarks appeared in the newspapers (and were lampooned in the comic strip Doonesbury), Reagan's EPA would, under heavy political pressure, strike a compromise that effectively sped up the phaseout. Once again, Ethyl had been let down by old friends.

The New Science of Lead

Ethyl and Octel continued to whine, but by 1984 the health benefits of America's lead phaseout had become too remarkable to ignore, and it was this fact that ultimately ended lead's reign in America. The harmful effects of lead at lower and lower concentrations had been shown by independent studies in the late seventies and early eighties, and by now PHS was at long last settling in with the antilead camp. EPA economist Joel Schwartz, assigned by his Reaganaut superiors to examine the impact of the lead phaseout on small refiners preparatory to phasing lead back in, went rogue and reported back instead on the impact of the phaseout's early years on American blood-lead levels, which the federal Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta had been independently compiling. The CDC's findings were startling, contradicting everything leadheads of the Kehoe school held dear.

Between 1976 and 1980 the EPA would report, the amount of lead consumed in gasoline dropped 50 percent. Over the same period, blood-lead levels dropped 37 percent. The EPA estimated that the public benefits of the phaseout, which included reduced medical costs and lower maintenance for cars, had already exceeded costs by $700 million. Between 1975 and 1984 lead for gasoline consumption dropped 73 percent, while ambient air lead decreased 71 percent [see graph in printed issue].

The Lead Industries Association was so angry with the data the EPA had corralled that in June 1984 it sued the CDC, which had impaneled its lead experts to prepare an updated statement on childhood lead poisoning for the nation's medical and public health community (the suit was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds). Schwartz told The Nation that the collection of lead data was hindered by the Reagan Administration, which, early in its term, prohibited the CDC from requiring lead-screening programs to report results to it, figures that it would then publish each quarter in the scientific journal Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Reports. Subsequently, the CDC was prohibited from even inquiring about lead-screening program results.

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