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.

It's Cleanup Time

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

The public health benefits and cost savings to societies of removing lead from gasoline are so vast that the business-friendly World Bank was moved--at a 1996 UN conference in Turkey, where leaded gas still accounts for 82 percent of the market--to call for a complete global phaseout. The bank calculated that the United States had saved more than $10 for every $1 it invested in its conversion to unleaded, by reducing health costs, saving on engine maintenance and improving fuel efficiency with modern engine technologies. Further claiming that no-lead fuel may increase engine life by as much as 150 percent, the bank called for an immediate five-year phaseout. (Buttressing the World Bank's public-spirited campaign, undoubtedly, is the realization that many of the state-owned oil companies currently producing leaded gasoline will require private investment--and possibly ownership--to finance refinery upgrades to produce high-octane unleaded fuels.)

Unsurprisingly, the industry, which favors phaseouts of twenty-years' duration and more, responded testily:

"Octel and the World Bank have been discussing the transition from leaded to unleaded gasoline for a long time," a spokesman told the Chemical Marketing Reporter in 1996. "It isn't really appropriate for the World Bank to apply US studies and data to the phaseout of lead in Third World countries."

Ethyl and Octel both have strategies for dealing with Third World nations seeking to go unleaded. In separate interviews with The Nation, they admitted advising their remaining customers to go slow. As Ethyl's vice president of international sales, Bob Yondola, explained: "As countries have the infrastructure to support unleaded gasoline, have the monies for their people to buy the new cars, etc., etc., it makes sense [to switch to unleaded gas]. But if you've got some parts of the world where their infrastructure is still--you know, they need to come up with food and water, and sewers...for their people. And there are still places in the world like that. Then, I mean, getting the lead out of the gasoline, to me, wouldn't make as much sense as having sewers."

Associated Octel's public affairs spokesman Bob Larbey, since retired, said his firm will help Third World refiners clean up their contaminated lead operations, for a fee. "But," he said, "we talk to developing countries. For example, refiners come to us and say, 'We want to get the lead out,' because we're refinery experts, you see, and we could advise them on how they could best phase lead out, with what strategy. I think if we argue anything at all, we say, 'Well, if you're going to go out of lead, fine, let's talk a bit, but there's no need, this is the lead in health information, there's no proven adverse health affect, and so there's no need for you to do it precipitously. You might not want to take twenty years [as in the European phaseout] but really, there's no need to rush.' Because if you replaced it with other components of petrol then there's a risk from anything.... Petrol itself is a risk without lead."

The lead industry clutches the alleged dangers of other octane-enhancing gasoline additives near to its bosom. While admitting the hazard of his company's product, one Octel executive told the New York Times that leaded fuel is an "economic and environmental bargain" for the Third World because it improves fuel economy, which lowers other emissions like benzene, also found in gasoline.

"Getting rid of one environmental risk won't necessarily improve public health if you replace it with greater risks," yet another spokesman for Octel's affiliate told the Chemical Marketing Reporter. Benzene, the hazard to which lead enthusiasts refer most often, can be used by refiners to boost octane cheaply in the absence of lead. But it isn't mandatory, and any sensible lead-reduction regulation would limit its use. Moreover, while as many as 5,000 Americans died annually from lead-related heart disease prior to the lead phaseout, only forty-seven people developed cancer from the use of benzene as a lead replacement. "The health impacts of aromatics [like benzene] are several orders of magnitude less than that of lead," said a World Bank spokesperson.

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