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The secret history of leaded gasoline


Really long, but really good if you want to read an appalling tail of corporate malfeasance. GM and Sloan knew full well lead was poisonous, and they already knew of a fine anti-knock additive, ethanol. But you couldn't patent ethanol, while with patents on tetraethyl lead GM could make a profit on every gallon of gasoline sold. And there's conspiracy, and Caltech involvement (good) and companies still denying danger to this day. Quotes:

Instead of joining forces with Ethyl, Patterson delivered a lecture assailing the company's activities and predicting the demise of their TEL operation. Following these events, his longstanding contract with the Public Health Service was not renewed, nor was a substantial contract with the American Petroleum Institute. Members of the board of trustees at Cal Tech leaned on the chairman of his department to fire him. Others have alleged that Ethyl offered to endow a chair at Cal Tech if Patterson was sent packing.

American auto makers saw the threat that air pollution posed to their business. In the mid-fifties they'd concluded a formal but secret agreement among themselves to license pollution-control technologies jointly and not publicize discoveries in the area without prior approval of all the signatories, a pre-emptive strike against those who would pressure them to install costly emissions controls. The effect of their pact would be to stifle the development of these much-needed devices and technologies. When their agreement came to the Justice Department's attention in 1969, the fallout from the exposure of their perfidy and mounting awareness of the nation's out-of-control smog problem would guarantee passage of air-pollution laws that would eventually put lead out of business in America. By this time, the legislative mood had changed as it pertained to the automobile, fueled in large measure by the work--and persecution, by GM--of a young lawyer and Congressional aide named Ralph Nader, who, after raising serious questions about auto safety, had been followed and harassed by GM's private detectives.

In January 1969 the four major US auto companies and their trade association--along with seven manufacturers of trucks and cabs, listed as co-conspirators--were accused by the Justice Department of conspiracy to delay development and use of devices to control air pollution from cars, based on their secret agreement. Though they would settle the government's suit in September by agreeing to terminate their compact as well as all joint research, publicity or lobbying on emissions issues, Detroit's position vis-à-vis air pollution had been severely compromised. Ethyl was on its own now, and it was fair and easy game to take the fall.

Ethyl's excitable Blanchard lashed out, "The whole proceeding against an industry that has made invaluable contributions to the American economy for more than fifty years is the worst example of fanaticism since the New England witch hunts in the Seventeenth Century."

The ever-hopeful lead cabal's dreams were cruelly dashed in early 1982, after word leaked out of Vice President George Bush's Task Force on Regulatory Relief that the newly elected Reagan Administration planned to relax or eliminate the US lead phaseout. Recognizing its cue, Du Pont formally called upon the EPA to rescind all lead regulations. EPA Administrator Ann Gorsuch was only too pleased to comply, but she unwittingly launched a firestorm of bad publicity in advance of an announcement by telling a visiting refiner with a big mouth that she would not enforce violations of current lead limits because the regulations would soon be repealed. When Gorsuch's remarks appeared in the newspapers (and were lampooned in the comic strip Doonesbury), Reagan's EPA would, under heavy political pressure, strike a compromise that effectively sped up the phaseout. Once again, Ethyl had been let down by old friends.

Schwartz told The Nation that the collection of lead data was hindered by the Reagan Administration, which, early in its term, prohibited the CDC from requiring lead-screening programs to report results to it, figures that it would then publish each quarter in the scientific journal Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Reports. Subsequently, the CDC was prohibited from even inquiring about lead-screening program results.

Still, one of the most telling measures of the extent of human lead contamination--careful measurement of lead levels in the bones of our preindustrial ancestors--argues against too much backslapping. A 1992 article in The New England Journal of Medicine revealed that pre-Columbian inhabitants of North America had average blood-lead levels 625 times lower than the current "safe" level of 10 mcg/dl.

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 enters the atmosphere every twenty-four hours. A research scientist with the Canadian National Water Research Institute performed roadside-dust analyses in Nigeria that revealed as much as 6,000 parts per million of lead. In the United States, lead dust is considered hazardous to children at 600 ppm [see chart in printed issue].

In Alexandria, Egypt, where gas is heavily leaded, concentrations of TEL and air-lead levels are often double the European Union's recommended level, and traffic controllers have been found to suffer central nervous system dysfunction. In Cairo more than 800 infants die annually because of maternal exposure to lead. Daytime air-lead levels in Buenos Aires have been measured at 3.9 grams per cubic meter versus the twenty-four-hour EU limit of 1 gram per cubic meter.

Ironically, in the nineties the Venezuelan state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, exported unleaded gasoline. But it was importing TEL and adding it to all gasoline sold for domestic use--this in the country with the greatest number of automobiles per capita in Latin America. By way of explanation, it is perhaps not unhelpful to know that several high-ranking officials of the state oil company held consultancies with companies that sell lead additives to the country. Among the consequences of this corrupt arrangement: According to a 1991 study 63 percent of newborns studied had blood-lead levels in excess of US "safe" levels.

Finally, because lead ruins catalytic converters and fouls modern engine-management computers, leaded gasoline prevents motorists in these countries from using more efficient, less-polluting modern vehicles even if they want to. Where cars equipped with catalysts are sold as new or used vehicles, a predominantly leaded fuel supply invites motorists to either remove the air-cleansing catalysts or destroy them by filling their cars with leaded fuel.

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.

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."

As for General Motors, Du Pont, Standard Oil, Ethyl, Associated Octel and rest of the lead cabal, it's conceivable they'll be hauled into court sooner or later, which is one reason these companies all take such an active interest in so-called tort reform legislation. You would too, if you had been a key actor in one of the most tortious episodes of twentieth-century industrial history.

See the comment count unavailable DW comments at http://mindstalk.dreamwidth.org/347028.html#comments


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Jan. 12th, 2013 12:05 pm (UTC)
Given the massive negative effect of lead on IQ, it's generally correct to deal with it even before "food and water, and sewers".
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )


Damien Sullivan

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