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They got together and put lead, a known poison, into gasoline, for profit.Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute.Odorless, colorless and tasteless, lead can be detected only through chemical analysis.Unlike such carcinogens and killers as pesticides, most chemicals, waste oils and even radioactive materials, lead does not break down over time. For this reason, most of the estimated 7 million tons of lead burned in gasoline in the United States in the twentieth century remains–in the soil, air and water and in the bodies of living organisms.Worldwide, it is estimated that modern man’s lead exposure is 300 to 500 times greater than background or natural levels.Indeed, a 1983 report by Britain’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution concluded that lead was dispersed so widely by man in the twentieth century that “it is doubtful whether any part of the earth’s surface or any form of life remains uncontaminated by anthropogenic [man-made] lead.” While lead from mining, paint, smelting and other sources is still a serious environmental problem, a recent report by the government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry estimated that the burning of gasoline has accounted for 90 percent of lead placed in the atmosphere since the 1920s.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. 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.
The effects of pervasive exposure to lower levels of lead are more easily miscredited; lead poisoning has been called an “aping disease” because its symptoms are so frequently those of other known ailments.
You can choose whether to smoke, but you can’t pick the air you breathe, even if it is contaminated by lead particles from automobile exhaust.
Seventy-five years ago, well-known industrialists like GM’s Alfred Sloan and Charles Kettering (remembered today for having founded the prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center) and the powerful brothers Pierre and Irénée du Pont added to their substantial fortunes and did the planet very dirty by disregarding the common-sense truth that no good can come from burning a long-known poison in internal-combustion engines.
Children are the first and worst victims of leaded gas; because of their immaturity, they are most susceptible to systemic and neurological injury, including lowered IQs, reading and learning disabilities, impaired hearing, reduced attention span, hyperactivity, behavioral problems and interference with growth.
Because they often go undetected for some time, such maladies are particularly insidious.