Lead–Balloons & Bouquets

Lead–Balloons & Bouquets

Arlington, Mass.


Arlington, Mass.

I finally decided to subscribe because of an article that made me sick to my stomach. “The Secret History of Lead” by Jamie Lincoln Kitman [March 20] was so rich in technical and historical detail and so incisive in its social analysis that it colors my whole view of the American Century. The author (and whoever helped in the editorial department) is to be commended for brilliantly combining a command of the technology with a sense of how to shape a great story.


Maplewood, N.J.

As an engineer, I read with great interest and emotion your issue on lead additives. I have passed around my copy to any clear-minded person I know, wondering perhaps if there would be any left after what was done. “The Secret History of Lead” is one of the greatest pieces of investigative journalism on the environment and politics. Jamie Lincoln Kitman should be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for courageously documenting the disastrous public policy and catastrophic health impact created by the collusion of big money and government.


Sacramento, Calif.

Last night I read all of the lead article, a fine piece of work, and arose this morning to the paper’s banner headline White House Seeks Ban on MTBE in Gas. What a stupefying fit!

As a consultant working on biomass ethanol projects in California, where the MTBE problem is becoming more pronounced, I find it amazing to see how the vestiges of corporatism as documented by Kitman continue to run roughshod over us all. The morning paper says MTBE was put in gasoline to replace lead when the air pollution it caused could no longer be tolerated. And, according to a recent 60 Minutes on MTBE, the petroleum industry chose MTBE–a petrochemical–as the substitute for lead even though it knew that ethanol would be as good or better and that ethanol would not pollute the air or water like MTBE. The inescapable conclusion is that the corporatists pulled the same trick on us twice, once with lead, then with MTBE.


Clarkston, Mich.

Having spent my thirty-five-year career at General Motors as part of the team that led the world in achieving major reductions in vehicle emissions and spurred the development of clean fuels, I have to believe that Jamie Kitman must be a proponent of the “half the truth is good enough” school. Yes, lead is poisonous. Yes, lead is bad for catalytic converters. No, now is not the time for GM to advocate a worldwide phaseout of leaded gasoline. GM did that more than thirty years ago, when it started the program to eliminate lead in gasoline and use catalytic converters. GM worked to convince the US oil industry and the lead suppliers to get the lead out. That example has spread around the world. Contrary to Kitman, the World Bank, in its recent push for worldwide lead removal from gasoline, is the Johnny Come Lately here.

Taking lead out of gasoline certainly makes sense. But the decision rests with the governments of the developing countries still using lead, not with the automakers. They would be more than willing to supply vehicles with catalytic converters if unleaded gasoline was available, and they have consistently urged these countries to move to unleaded gasoline.

In the past thirty years, GM has made many pioneering contributions to reduce vehicle emissions and provide cleaner air. GM’s research led the call for reformulated gasoline, which is now 30-35 percent of the gasoline used in the United States. Both the EPA and the California Air Resources Board have cited reformulated gasoline as the second-largest contributor to reducing vehicle emissions, after the combination of unleaded gasoline and catalytic converters, which GM pioneered.

JOSEPH M. COLUCCI, president
Automotive Fuels Consulting, Inc.

Washington, D.C.

Your article’s greatest value is that it relates the history of lead to the current production, use and marketing of this toxic product, especially in the developing world. Readers will be heartened to know that advocates for children’s health, social justice and sustainability are battling corporations profiting from leaded gasoline. The Alliance to End Childhood Lead Poisoning (www.globalleadnet.org), a US-based NGO, is coordinating an international campaign to eliminate leaded gasoline and redress irresponsible corporate behavior.


Hanover, N.H.

Further evidence of the problems caused by leaded gasoline has emerged from my research with chemical engineer Myron J. Coplan, funded by the EPA and the Earhart Foundation. Although your article includes only a passing reference to the connection between lead and violent behavior, the likely neurochemical reasons for the effect have been clearly established, and we have found evidence confirming that it explains a lot about US crime rates. Re-analysis of annual crime data shows that the phase-out of leaded gas was directly paralleled by a decline in the murder rate. This is another way that taking lead out of gasoline has saved lives.


Rowayton, Conn.

Jamie Kitman’s article was one of the most disturbing pieces of journalism I’ve seen in years. This article so clearly articulates that the greed and poor judgment of big business (in this case GM, Du Pont and Standard Oil) have done irreparable damage to our nation’s health and environment while, knowingly, Big Brother looked the other way. More shameful is that despite all we have learned about the damage lead does, we continue to exploit the economies and risk the health of Third World nations for a cavalier profit motive.


New York City

There is no question that the phaseout of leaded gasoline had a major positive impact on public health. However, your phrasing of Dr. Sergio Piomelli’s statement to the effect that after the US lead phaseout was complete only “1,500 of 100,000” New York City children tested had “similarly high [lead] levels” may leave a somewhat misleading sense of the extent of childhood lead poisoning today.

As the state of scientific knowledge of lead’s adverse impacts has advanced, the threshold at which the level of lead in a child’s blood is considered “lead poisoning” has been steadily lowered. Thus, in New York City there are currently some 30,000 or more children each year (the vast majority from communities of color) with blood-lead levels that meet or exceed the definition of lead poisoning in the city’s health code and the federal Centers for Disease Control guidelines. It is widely acknowledged that the overwhelming source of poisonings is from lead paint remaining in older dwellings. An examination of the role of the Lead Industry Association and the paint pigment manufacturers in this other aspect of the public health debacle over lead would be a fine subject for another Nation special report by Kitman.

Counsel to the New York City
Coalition to End Lead Poisoning

Columbiaville, Mich.

As far as addressing a symptom of automobiles, the article on lead is right on. But how about addressing the core problem, the use of automobiles in general? Kitman, obviously a car enthusiast, is like the death-penalty advocate who critiques the manner in which executions are carried out: He merely wants to reform the system, not eradicate it.

Kitman notes that the “merchants of tetraethyl lead…are no better than criminals.” Considering that motor vehicles are the largest source of environmental destruction (as reported by the Union of Concerned Scientists), I would take his statement much further by adding that the makers of automobiles, too, are no better than criminals, and, moreover, those who buy and use their products are their partners in ecological crime.


Gainesville, Fla.

From 1940 to 1945 I was employed by Du Pont at an Ethyl-owned tetraethyl lead plant at Baton Rouge. The management was diligent in informing us of the horrific effects of TEL poisoning, as distinguished from that of inorganic lead. However, we were assured that the lead spewed into the atmosphere from the burning of leaded gasoline was no cause for concern. The horrifying fates of the workers at the first TEL plant came to us through the grapevine–not from management. Though I had some qualms about the material the plant was making, I had no idea of the extent of Ethyl’s cover-up until I read your article.


Windsor, Calif.

On February 13, 1972, the EPA administrator proposed a lead regulation in the Federal Register that would have allowed the sale of gasoline with 1.25 grams of lead per gallon. This decision would have perpetuated the myth that there is a safe level of lead particulates in the air we breathe, despite the fact that lead is a poison with no known value in human metabolism.

As a member of the Get the Lead Out of Gasoline Committee in California, I testified on behalf of the national Sierra Club at the Lead Additives Hearing of the EPA on May 2, 1972, in Los Angeles. We agreed with the EPA administrator that lead was better regulated as a fuel additive than as a tailpipe emission. The Ethyl Corporation, of course, wanted tailpipe emissions regulations that would have required control devices on tailpipes to collect the lead particulates before they were emitted into the air, but we wanted lead eliminated altogether. The committee had some very prestigious members, including Nobel Laureate Dr. Josh Lederberg, Sumner Kalman, MD, of Stanford and physicist Robert Debs.

One of the heroes of the battle to get lead out of gasoline was California Director of Public Health Dr. John Goldsmith, who, in a California legislative hearing on lead additives, referred to a medical witness for Ethyl as a prostitute for the company.


San Francisco

As Thomas Midgley’s great-grandson, I’d like first to offer my apologies to the world at large for the environmental damage caused by many of Midgley’s accomplishments in chemistry. A sidebar, “The Amazing Mr. Midgley,” to Jamie Kitman’s excellent article mentions Midgley’s “four years of paralysis [leading to his death], allegedly caused by polio.” To my knowledge everyone in my family has always believed that Mr. Midgley’s polio was tragic and very real. I believe that Midgley even corresponded with President Franklin Roosevelt concerning their common illness and that the President responded in kind.

I would like to ask Kitman either to produce evidence that Midgley did not have polio or to withdraw this statement. Regarding the article itself, I found it very compelling and accurate on all other details of Midgley’s life, with which I am familiar. In closing, I’d like to note that my 1961 Ford Falcon also runs just fine on unleaded gasoline–no knocks!


Dresden, Me.

I have a question for Jamie Kitman. Tetraethyl lead is still available in the United States as an additive that you special order. My father adds some to the fuel tank of his Mark IX Jaguar the two times a year he drives it. Is there a product on the market that he could add fairly easily that would prevent knocking in an old engine built for leaded fuel?


Richmond, Va.

You may not be aware that the Ethyl Corporation recently demolished thirteen homes here–in the Oregon Hill Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Ethyl cited high renovation costs in its decision to demolish the invaluable structures of its next-door neighborhood. Maybe what Ethyl was really concerned about was the cost of the lead paint abatement in these homes, or maybe it was concerned that the lead paint dust would taint their adjacent corporate headquarters. If Ethyl shows such little regard for its neighbors, we can expect it to show little concern for the health of the Third World countries receiving its lead additives.

Charles Pool


Palisades, N.Y.

Thanks to the many kind folks who’ve written and phoned to express their interest in this story. Americans care a lot more about their gasoline than most of us pointy-headed New Yorkers appreciate, though it must also be said that there is clearly something extra eye-opening about the news that we’ve been consistently lied to about a basic consumer good for close to eighty years. The recent debate on MTBE, rife with spurious claims, reminds us that corporate self-interest unchecked and statements of “fact” unexamined make for supercharged forces of environmental destruction and historical revisionism.

Speaking of confused history, Joseph M. Colucci, former GM engineer, misses the point entirely. Nowhere did I call for GM to lead the charge to remove TEL from gasoline, though come to think of it, as they were the ones who led the charge to put it there in the first place, he could be on to something. With outposts around the world, GM is well situated to spread the word about the devastating effects of its invention, and such a campaign would do its corporate karma a world of good. Come on, General, your bully pulpit awaits.

Matthew J. Chachère calls attention to the hazard posed by lead paint. He is kind to suggest I tackle this long and equally sinister tale, but I’m looking forward to a book by David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz based on their recent ground-breaking work in this area. Their seminal research into the early history of leaded gasoline was most helpful to me. I thank them for it again and expect their lead paint history to hold similar fascination.

Thanks also to Stephen Midgley, but let us all assure him that he owes the world no apology. It’s not his fault that his ancestor made some fatefully misguided decisions. Indeed, were more space available, one might make a plausible case for the view that both Thomas Midgley and Charles Kettering had high-minded hopes for renewable energies, speaking until the end of their days about a solar-powered future. Corporate decision-making beyond your great-grandfather’s control–along with limited time, funding and the onset of ill health–surely stepped in the way of a more wholesome legacy. As for Midgley the elder’s death, surely the inventor’s family knows more than we do. But because lead poisoning was often misdiagnosed, I’d respectfully submit that the jury is still out on the exact cause of his final illness. It’s hard to shake the suspicion that regular hand-rinsing in the tetraethyl lead fluid and free-form freon inhalations were somehow involved in his premature death.

There’s an easy answer for Abby Vigneron’s dad and his old Jag. Gasoline of sufficient octane is available at the pump without resort to additives. I know so, because since 1989 I’ve run a 1963 Mk II Jaguar, which uses a virtually identical example of the famous XK six-cylinder engine found in her dad’s Mark IX.

Qani Belul, what can I say? A world with no cars? Good luck and more (unleaded) power to you.


Thank you for reading The Nation

We hope you enjoyed the story you just read, just one of the many incisive, deeply-reported articles we publish daily. Now more than ever, we need fearless journalism that shifts the needle on important issues, uncovers malfeasance and corruption, and uplifts voices and perspectives that often go unheard in mainstream media.

Throughout this critical election year and a time of media austerity and renewed campus activism and rising labor organizing, independent journalism that gets to the heart of the matter is more critical than ever before. Donate right now and help us hold the powerful accountable, shine a light on issues that would otherwise be swept under the rug, and build a more just and equitable future.

For nearly 160 years, The Nation has stood for truth, justice, and moral clarity. As a reader-supported publication, we are not beholden to the whims of advertisers or a corporate owner. But it does take financial resources to report on stories that may take weeks or months to properly investigate, thoroughly edit and fact-check articles, and get our stories into the hands of readers.

Donate today and stand with us for a better future. Thank you for being a supporter of independent journalism.

Ad Policy