Wednesday, March 15, 2017
Dear Mr. Pruitt, let's talk about lead
Dear Mr. Pruitt,
Last week I wrote to you about DDT. This week let’s consider lead. Like DDT, another jaw-dropper for my environmental toxicology undergrads. You may not remember leaded gasoline. It was phasing out just as you were probably hitting the road. But I do, and I remember feeling good about asking for “unleaded” at the pump. Those were the days when the tetra-ethyl lead added to gas was called just “ethyl.” The manufactures, a combination of Dupont, Standard Oil and General Motors, branded their new company and their product with a young woman’s name, leaving out the second half – the lead — that literally drove men crazy if not to their death. The chemical helped gas burn more efficiently; a good thing. And it helped the oil industry dominate the automobile industry by pushing aside other possible fuels or fuel additives, like ethanol.
Lead is another opportunity to discuss the struggle between those who tried to protect Americans and the nation’s workers and an industry that values profit over all. A struggle that is now something you must face almost daily. In this case Alice Hamilton, a tireless and pioneering advocate for worker health who, along with others, tried to get the lead out as early as 1925. This was just a year after workers at the so-called House of Butterflies died; one of them in a straitjacket, his brain poisoned by the additive. There is also the story of how tetra-ethyl, a product of American Industry, helped launch the Nazi Luftwaffe (leaded fuel was a necessity for their airplanes). And the story of how the industry, when asked by the surgeon general if public health impacts of the new additive had been considered, apparently assured him, sans any data, that the streets would be “…so free from lead that it will be impossible to detect..”*
Industry assurances and oil politics aside, I don’t need to exaggerate, advocate or hammer home the benefits of chemical regulation when it comes to lead.
Despite Hamilton and colleagues’ best efforts, the industry went on to use, at its peak in 1970, some 250,000 tons of lead in gasoline. That is hundreds of thousands of tons of lead pried from the earth’s crust and spewed into our air, water and soil. The sheer magnitude of lead used in gasoline was another shocker for students alerted to the problem of lead more recently via the recent news from Flint, Michigan and elsewhere. A generation who now equates lead with old pipes and drinking water. Those were the days when there was an average of 2-3 gramsof lead in every gallon of gasoline. My mother’s Country Squire, the old wood paneled station wagon, much like today’s Escalades, Land Cruisers and Suburbans (which have only slightly improved mileage) burned through about a gallon of gasoline every twelve miles. Living in the suburbs our family contributed plenty of lead to our neighborhood, the back streets of Boston and points north and south. (Back of the envelope: 10,000 miles of travel per year, 833 gallons of gas meant roughly 2000 grams, or 70 ounces of lead, a year.) Over the courses of my childhood, my mother’s car added a little less than my own body weight at the time, ninety pounds of lead, to our environment. And that was just one car — my dad’s black VW bug (roughly 20 MPG) contributed it own fair share. I don’t think these are numbers anyone could be proud of. No matter who you are, where you live or what political party you belong to.
By the 1960’s the national average for lead in blood rose to somewhere around 600 parts per billion (we can’t blame this all on ethyl, our homes – inside and out – were coated in the stuff as well.) It’s likely that my sisters and I carried in our blood, lead levels that would now be considered high – although most likely, we were better off than kids living in the city. Today, we worry about children with blood lead over 50 parts per billion. We also know that aside from the more immediate poisonous effects, even in small amounts lead can lower children’s I.Qs and alter their behavior.
That my students were clueless about leaded gasoline, is, in large part thanks to the EPA. When your agency ordered manufacturers to phase-out lead and find a replacement, it was not only an EPA victory, but a victory for all Americans. Here is Carol Browner as the final nails hit the lead coffin in 1996:
Why even talk about leaded gasoline? Because like DDT, this was another triumph of your agency. Another victory over powerful industries that put profits over human health. Lead is clearly still a problem – particularly for municipalities and homes with aging pipes and in too many cases lead paint – legacies from our earlier generations, that sadly keep on giving. But we all still use gasoline. And, both the automobile industry and the oil industry have retained if not grown in power over the decades. I would love to provide my students with current examples of good Corporate Citizens. I’d like to say, “That was then, this is now.” There is plenty of opportunity for the corporations that impact the quality of the air we breath and must hold responsibility for our health and for our changing climate (I understand you disagree here – so I won’t belabor this point). With nearly a century of exposure to oil combustion products – the health-science is indisputable. As you advocate for a smaller EPA, and consider the current CAFE (fuel economy) standards, I would very much appreciate some examples to share with my public health students, so that they can rest assured that they won’t be telling their students jaw-dropping stories from the time that EPA handed its authority over to big oil and the auto industry.
Featured Image: Sign on an antique gasoline pump, advertising gasoline additive (tetraethyl lead) by the Ethyl Corporation. Photo taken at the highway rest stop on I-94 westbound, east of Bismarck, North Dakota, USA. Plazak, 2010.
*Midgley, T. Jr., 1922, Letter to Cumming, National Archives Record Group 90, 30 December 1922