06/12/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Lead Redux: An Unfinished Horror Story

The story of tetra-ethyl lead is a cautionary tale, an example of how allowing the "market" and politics to determine protection standards can bring tragedy to the public.

Leaded gasoline was used in America from the 1920s to the 1980s, and it's still sold overseas by the major oil companies.

The basic fallacy that led to the horror story was the idea that for any substance foreign and toxic to the human body there exists a threshold concentration below which the substance is harmless.

The simple engineering motive for using tetra-ethyl lead (TEL) as an additive to gasoline was to improve combustion efficiency. There were other possible additives known at the time, all of them less hazardous than TEL, but the manufacture of TEL-gas, "leaded" gas, was protected by patent, while other possible additives were not protected. The commercial strategy was clear: push for the use of leaded gasoline, debunk ideas of danger to the public, emphasize the impracticality of other additives. Leaded gasoline was given the name "Ethyl", and General Motors and Standard Oil of New Jersey sold Ethyl to the automobile-hungry American public.

The consequence: During the sixty years between 1925 and 1985, an estimated 68 million children were poisoned by automobile lead emissions.

The evidence is substantial that the corporations involved were fully aware of the dangers to the American public. Lead, after all, had been known for centuries to be highly toxic, especially to children. The corporate argument was that there was no evidence that the minute amounts of lead released into the air by leaded gasoline use would be harmful, but there was plenty of evidence that increased combustion efficiency would help the American economy.

The time was the 1920s, a decade of Republican free-market capitalism, and the federal government cooperated completely with corporate interests to put leaded gasoline in use as quickly as possible.

The entire tragedy might have been avoided if the federal agencies designed to protect and advance public health had been more diligent in their work and testimony to Congress. But the mood of the country was against regulation of industry, and the American people paid the price for their mood -- a heavy price paid, not only for that generation, but for the next two generations.

And the public is still paying the price: At the present time there are millions of Americans whose brains have been damaged by cumulative lead intake beginning with fetal life and progressing through childhood and afterwards. The leaded-gasoline fiasco demonstrates how easily the public can be fooled if industry and government collude.

The end of leaded gas in America occurred only slowly. In 1970, Congress finally passed the Clean Air Act. In order to avoid restrictions on the use of the internal combustion engine, General Motors agreed to add catalytic converters to new cars to comply with the law. Since converters are inactivated by leaded gas, the beginning of the end for TEL was in place.

In 1972, the EPA revealed its intention to phase out leaded completely, and the Ethyl Corporation immediately sued the agency. The agency's standards were upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals in 1976, and the Supreme Court refused to consider the case.

In 1980, the National Academy of Sciences called leaded gasoline the greatest sources of atmospheric lead pollution.

In 1981, Vice President George H.W. Bush, the elder Bush, headed the Task Force on Regulatory Relief, the main purpose of which was to prevent the impending leaded gas phase-out. Bush failed, and in 1986 the phase-out of leaded gas in the United States was completed.

In 1994, a study revealed that from 1978 to 1991, before and after the phase-out of leaded gasoline, the level of lead in the blood of the American population declined 78 percent.

In the year 2000, the European Union banned leaded gasoline.

Counting the people who are currently suffering the consequences of lead in their bodies derived from leaded gasoline is not possible. The figure is certainly in the hundreds of millions, the brain damage deficits real, the complete damage not yet known.

The manufacture of lead gasoline has not stopped. It's manufactured and sold by several British and American companies to a number of developing nations in Africa and Asia. Because of this continued sale, millions of children around the world continue to be poisoned by the lead derived from leaded gasoline.

It's worth noting specifically some of the key individuals involved in promoting leaded gasoline in America from the time of its inception to the time it was banned:

Alfred Sloan of the General Motors Corp.
Andrew Mellon, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury.
Charles Kettering of the General Motors Corp.
Pierre Du Pont of the E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co.
Irenée Du Pont of the E.I. Du Pont de Nemours & Co.
Thomas Midgley Jr. of the General Motors Research Corp.
H. S. Cumming, U.S. Surgeon General.
Frank Howard of the Standard Oil Corp.
Robert Kehoe, Medical Consultant, Ethyl Gasoline Corp.
George H. W. Bush, Vice-President of the United States.
Earle W. Webb of the Ethyl Gasoline Corp.

And many others, including many in the national media. Year after year, the New York Times assured its readers in its editorials that leaded gasoline was safe for public consumption, no hazard at all to adults or children.

The average blood level in the United States in 1975 was 15.5 units. In 2004, with leaded gasoline banned in America, the reported average was 2 units.

Still, 10 percent of all American children aged 1 to 5 have blood levels of lead greater than 4.8 units, and 430,000 of these children have levels greater than 10 units.

In 2002, the current Bush administration rejected experts nominated for the CDC Lead Evaluation Committee who had published reports recommending a lowering of the CDC lower limit for blood lead in children. Instead, the Bush administration nominated individuals believed by critics to have links with the lead industry.

The 60 year history of leaded gasoline was an American Chernobyl, and like the effects of radiation, the tragic consequences will be with us for a long time.