The next time you pull the family barge in for a fill-up, check it out: The gas pumps read “Unleaded.” You might reasonably suppose this is because naturally occurring lead has been thoughtfully removed from the gasoline. But you would be wrong. There is no lead in gasoline unless somebody puts it there. And, a little more than seventy-five years ago, some of America’s leading corporations–General Motors, Du Pont and Standard Oil of New Jersey (known nowadays as Exxon)–were that somebody. They got together and put lead, a known poison, into gasoline, for profit.
Lead was outlawed as an automotive gasoline additive in this country in 1986–more than sixty years after its introduction–to enable the use of emissions-reducing catalytic converters in cars (which are contaminated and rendered useless by lead) and to address the myriad health and safety concerns that have shadowed the toxic additive from its first, tentative appearance on US roads in the twenties, through a period of international ubiquity only recently ending. Since the virtual disappearance of leaded gas in the United States (it’s still sold for use in propeller airplanes), the mean blood-lead level of the American population has declined more than 75 percent. A 1985 EPA study estimated that as many as 5,000 Americans died annually from lead-related heart disease prior to the country’s lead phaseout. According to a 1988 report to Congress on childhood lead poisoning in America by the government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, one can estimate that the blood-lead levels of up to 2 million children were reduced every year to below toxic levels between 1970 and 1987 as leaded gasoline use was reduced. From that report and elsewhere, one can conservatively estimate that a total of about 68 million young children had toxic exposures to lead from gasoline from 1927 to 1987.
How did lead get into gasoline in the first place? And why is leaded gas still being sold in the Third World, Eastern Europe and elsewhere? Recently uncovered documents from the archives of the aforementioned industrial behemoths and the US government, a new skein of academic research and a careful reading of that long-ago period’s historical record, as well as dozens of interviews conducted by The Nation, tell the true story of leaded gasoline, a sad and sordid commercial venture that would tiptoe its way quietly into the black hole of history if the captains of industry were to have their way. But the story must be recounted now. The leaded gas adventurers have profitably polluted the world on a grand scale and, in the process, have provided a model for the asbestos, tobacco, pesticide and nuclear power industries, and other twentieth-century corporate bad actors, for evading clear evidence that their products are harmful by hiding behind the mantle of scientific uncertainty.
This is not just a textbook example of unnecessary environmental degradation, however. Nor is this history important solely as a cautionary retort to those who would doubt the need for aggressive regulation of industry, when commercial interests ask us to sanction genetically modified food on the basis of their own scientific assurances, just as the merchants of lead once did. The leaded gasoline story must also be read as a call to action, for the lead menace lives.