Get the Lead Out

The next time you fill up the family barge and are wincing at the soaring cost of gasoline, you might take some consolation in reminding yourself what's not in that precious amber fluid-lead. In 1986 in one of the most salutary moves for the health of the American people, particularly children, of this century, the United States banned leaded gasoline for cars. Lead is not a natural ingredient in gasoline. It was put there.Therein lies a classic tale of corporate greed, of profits over people. In 1923 lead -- more precisely tetraethyl lead (TEL), a deadly toxin -- began to be added to gasoline to stop engine knock and boost octane levels, even though safer alternatives were known and available. Behind this was General Motors, which patented TEL; Du Pont, which controlled GM and manufactured TEL; and the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation, jointly owned by GM and Standard Oil of New Jersey (now ExxonMobil), which marketed the highly profitable fluid.Even when it was introduced, public health authorities sounded alarms that such a highly toxic, nondegradable substance spewed into the atmosphere by a burgeoning US car fleet would act as a long-term cumulative poison. The industry, abetted by a complacent government, managed to fend off any regulation, but the scientific evidence continued to mount. By the 1960s, most scientists not on the Ethyl payroll agreed that leaded fuel was insidiously debilitating the systems of all exposed to it, causing health problems in adults and the young, who are much more sensitive to its effects.The immediate impetus to getting the lead out, however, was the introduction of catalytic converters, which cut down on auto pollution. In addition to all its other malign effects lead was lethal to these pollution-control devices. And so a clean-air-conscious United States phased out leaded gas (Japan had already done it in 1970). Now most members of the European Community have followed suit, and the World Bank has called for a five-year phase out of leaded gasoline worldwide.Yet, Ethyl and Octel, the corporate descendants of the original Ethyl Gasoline Corporation, which GM and Standard sold in 1962, still pump their noxious product into cars all over the Third World. Ask officials of these companies how in good conscience they can continue selling it, and they'll give you the same arguments their corporate forebearers used to deny that leaded gasoline is hazardous to our health. Ever since TEL was first sold in America, the companies profiting from it denied its harmfulness by using the now-familiar technique of contending, in the face of overwhelming evidence, that "more studies are needed" or that the charges were "not proven."Because of the marketing drive of Ethyl and Octel in the Third World, as of 1996 93 percent of all gasoline sold in Africa contained lead, 94 percent in the Middle East, 30 percent in Asia and 35 percent in Latin America. As a result:¤ According to the World Bank, 1.7 billion urbanites in developing nations are in danger of lead poisoning, including neurological damage, high blood pressure and heart disease from airborne lead, 90 percent of it attributable to leaded gasoline. ¤ In Mexico City, one of the world's most polluted (and populous) cities, 4 million cars pump an estimated 32 tons of lead each day into the air. In Jakarta, one and a half tons enter the atmosphere every twenty-four hours. ¤ Roadside-dust analyses in Nigeria revealed as much as 6,000 parts per million of lead. (Lead dust is considered hazardous to children at 600 ppm.) ¤ In Egypt, where gas is heavily leaded, Alexandria's traffic controllers suffer central-nervous-system dysfunction. In Cairo, more than 800 infants die annually owing to maternal exposure to lead. Daytime air-lead levels in Buenos Aires have been measured at 3.9 grams per cubic meter in the daytime versus the twenty-four-hour European Union limit of 1 gram per cubic meter.Among the consequences: According to a 1991 study, 63 percent of newborns in Venezuela had blood-lead levels in excess of US "safe" levels. In contrast, since the US lead phaseout began in the 1970s, the average blood-lead content of Americans has fallen more than 75 percent.The merchants of TEL will sooner or later face the legal consequences of their lethal traffic, as cigarette manufacturers are being been made to do, and they know it. In recent years Ethyl has moved to shield its assets, spinning off into separate companies all the many non-lead businesses it bought with lead profits. They are to be condemned for their behavior. And the national leaders who continue to allow them to poison their people should be harangued by the UN and international agencies. Lead is not good for people, it is not good for cars, and there are available alternatives. How can they keep selling it?This editorial is adapted from "The Secret History of Lead," the cover story for the March 20, 2000, issue of The Nation. Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute. Jamie Lincoln Kitman, a lawyer and writer, is a columnist and editor for Automobile Magazine.

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