The Lessons We Need to Learn from Lead (and an environmental book review)

We have been reading a book called Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution for our green chemistry class, and boy is it terrifying.  Authors Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner are historians who have had the privilege of pouring through entire rooms full of internal memos from both the lead and vinyl chloride industries, revealing the despicable ways that each industry has sacrificed the health of humanity and the environment to promote their products.

In this post, I’m going to focus on the story of lead, as an additive in both gasoline and paint.  It’s not a nice one.

Lead is toxic, especially to children, and scientists have known this for more than a century.  By 1915, lead toxicity was established in medical literature, and the largest lead producer in the United States even acknowledged it. Lead was banned in paints around the world (except in America) and safer zinc oxide paints were available by the 1920s.  How then did lead use in paint and gasoline manage to become so widespread in the United States in the 20th century?

Leaded gasoline, or tetraethyl lead, was developed in 1920s to prevent “knocking” of engines. The Ethyl Gasoline Corporation, formed by DuPont and GM, believed that there was no reason to hold up the production of such a magnificent technological advancement (read: immense profit), so when scientists called for extensive testing for potential health effects of the new product, Ethyl complied by funding research at a government institution.  With the money came the requirement that all results must be approved by Ethyl before publishing, essentially allowing industry to manipulate government research to meet their own agenda.

Just a few months after Ethyl announced that leaded gasoline was safe, five workers died in a plant in New Jersey.  Although the event made national headlines, lead remained in American gasoline for another sixty years because industry dealt with the event as “bad publicity,” rather than a health hazard.  The New Jersey deaths were falsely attributed to worker negligence on the floor and followed up with more industry funded studies that again concluded leaded gasoline was safe and even a normal component of the human body.

The key to the success of the lead industry in tricking us until the late 1900s was the formation in 1928 of the Lead Industries Association (LIA), a trade group with the sole purpose of promoting a favorable image of lead. The LIA hired a Harvard researcher to study the effects of lead in the human body.  However, he studied only adults, never children, whose small size and developing bodies are significantly more susceptible the effects of lead.

The attitude of the LIA toward children was disgusting.  Lead paint was so toxic that a single four square inch chip of one coat of paint could kill a child if ingested, but in response to rising cases of childhood lead poisoning the LIA blamed the child for chewing painted items. Although doctors maintained that the desire to mouth nonfood items while teething was perfectly normal, LIA’s Harvard scientist argued that this was “sub-normal” pathological behavior, and the children who acquired lead poisoning had only themselves to blame.

As evidence of the dangers of lead paint accumulated, the LIA simply worked harder to combat bad publicity.  “Lead helps to guard your health” read one flyer.  The secretary of the LIA even tried to buy the researchers behind a Time Magazine piece on disorders in children due to lead exposure.

And it goes on.  Every single time lead received any negative publicity, the LIA objected, while continuing to obscure honest research with its own deceptive publications.  Although lead paint dropped out of the economy almost completely by the 1950s, its market share was replaced by leaded gasoline and the LIA continued to lobby against legislation limiting their products.

The LIA was successful until the EPA and OSHA were founded in 1970. By the 1980s lead was outlawed in both gasoline and paint and finally branded a toxin by the government.

Despite the role of the US government to protect the people, the agenda of the lead industry prevailed for fifty years.  The impact on the American population as a whole, from IQ depression to reproductive damage, is immeasurable.

The story of lead is terribly important now as we fight against industries that value profit over health.  Endocrine disruptors in particular have the potential to damage human reproduction in immense ways, and they are everywhere.  Take, for example, BPA.  Is it an endocrine disruptor? Yes: in animals, for sure. Is it bad for us in small doses? Very likely.  Can we afford to wait sixty years to find out? Definitely not. But based on the general body of BPA literature out there, you may not conclude that.  I can’t help but see parallels between lead and BPA.  What if the BPA industry is hiding the effects of BPA on humans as deliberately as was done with lead and we can’t quite see it?  I am afraid that this is already happening. An article in Mother Jones just a few weeks ago discusses a recent presentation by scientists Justin Teeguarden, who believes “that levels of BPA in people are much lower than the levels required for significant effects.” After the author of the Mother Jones article was chided by fellow scientists for not considering these finding in a previous post, he points out that Teeguarden’s research has not been published anywhere and has not been subject to peer review.  He also reveals that Teeguarden has had significant past support from the chemical industry, and tends to preach the industry’s preferred view.  Sound familiar?

Scientists like Teeguarden frustrate me so much. The combination of biased research and the control of information by trade groups makes it near impossible for the average American to know how to take care of his or her body. The ease of publishing anything on the internet makes the problem even worse.

Obviously, we need change: honest research, freedom of information, public education, and sustainability and health ethics.  We need the government to do its job: protect the American people and preserve the land we live on.

In the meantime, here’s what you can do to try to keep yourself and the environment safe:

  • When you are reading something, look at the sources cited.  If there aren’t any, who knows where that information came from.
  • Check out the funding sources as well.  Researching funding can be disheartening because it seems like every penny is attached to a string, but knowing can help give you a broader picture of the situation.
  • Trust published (peer reviewed) work over any old internet post.  See point 1. 
  • Apply the precautionary principle more often in your life.
  • Ask questions.  Stick to your own personal ethics.  Find sources you can trust.

In this blog I try to research every topic as thoroughly as possible and cite or link to all of my sources.  If there is anything you have a question about, please let me know! I want this blog to be a source of information that you can trust.

Deceit and Denial is not a light read, but it is an important historical analysis of two situations that man can’t afford repeat. 


2 thoughts on “The Lessons We Need to Learn from Lead (and an environmental book review)

  1. Pingback: Twelve Endocrine Disruptors to Avoid | greenwake

  2. Pingback: In the news: The Chemical Industry is the New Tobacco | greenwake

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