The corporate decision in 1923 to add toxic lead to gasoline changed
the chemistry of planet Earth, particularly the northern hemisphere.
According to the National Research Council (NRC), in 1983 industrial
emissions of lead into the atmosphere exceeded natural lead emissions
by a factor of 700.[1,pg.105] In other words, by 1983, humans were
putting 700 times as much lead into the atmosphere as were natural
processes such as volcanoes, sea spray, etc.[1,pg.103] In 1983, humans
put 363,000 tons (330,000 metric tonnes) of lead into the atmosphere,
75% (272,800 tons) of it from automobile exhausts. (One ton is 2000
pounds; one metric tonne is 2200 pounds).
About 90% of lead emissions occur in the northern hemisphere where the
lead remains because it falls to Earth before it has time to float
across the equator.[1,pg.105]
In addition to putting 363,000 tons of lead into the atmosphere, humans
in 1983 put another 1.2 million tons of lead directly onto the land in
the form of commercial waste (330,000 tons), mine tailings (330,000
tons), municipal waste (8800 tons), sewage sludge (6600 tons), fly ash
from burning coal (154,000 tons), and so forth.[1,pg.105]
As a result, says the NRC, "the pandemic scale of lead contamination...
has increased lead concentrations throughout the Northern Hemisphere by
a factor of at least 10."[1,pg.107] In other words, the northern half
of the planet now has at least 10 times as much lead in soil and water
as it had before the arrival of Europeans in North America.
Naturally this translates into contamination of all parts of the
ecosystem. According to the NRC:
** Lead concentrations in terrestrial organisms of all kinds are 100
times as high as natural concentrations.[1,pg.107] In other words, all
animals, birds, worms, insects, etc., now carry 100 times as much lead
in their bodies as they used to. In sum, everything has been poisoned.
** The NRC says humans have pulled about 300 million metric tonnes (330
million tons) of lead out of the Earth and "Most of the 300 million
metric tons of lead ever produced remains in the environment, largely
in soil and dust.... Today's production evolves into tomorrow's
background exposure, and despite reductions in the use of lead for
gasoline, overall production continues to grow and federal agencies
have not addressed the impact of future increases of lead in the
In other words, all of the lead that is mined out of the deep earth
eventually becomes environmental contamination; it is very long-lived,
resulting in the progressive, cumulative poisoning of the environment
with a potent neurotoxin. All creatures --especially humans, who eat at
the top of the food chain --have been severely contaminated and are no
doubt suffering subtle and not-so-subtle impairments today.
It is worth emphasizing that lead "consumption" in the U.S. only
diminished 8% between 1970 and 1990 even though major uses of lead were
banned by the U.S. government. The lead industry is very creative in
finding new uses for lead, and, because it is organized in the form of
corporations, the industry is incapable of feeling remorse for the
irreversible damage it is doing to life on Earth. Corporations cannot
voluntarily curb their misbehavior because they have only one duty: to
return a profit to investors, no matter what the costs may be to
others. So long as poisoning is legal, corporations will poison (and if
poisoning is profitable, they will spend millions on election campaigns
to make sure poisoning remains legal.) (See REHW #308, #388, #449,
The amount of lead in a person's blood that is officially
considered "safe" today is 10 micrograms of lead in each deciliter of
blood, or 10 ug/dL. (A microgram is a millionth of a gram; there are 28
grams in an ounce. A deciliter is a tenth of a liter; a liter is
approximately a quart.) According to the most recent estimates, in the
period 1991-1994, somewhere between 613,000 and 1.4 million American
children younger than 6 years old (mostly African Americans and
Hispanics living in large cities) had average blood lead levels of 10
ug/dL or more; a third of these children had blood lead levels of 15
ug/dL or more.
The NRC said in 1993, "There is growing evidence that even very small
exposures to lead can produce subtle effects in humans. Therefore,
there is the possibility that future [safety] guidelines may drop below
10 ug/dL as the mechanisms of lead toxicity become better
understood."[1,pg.3] The NRC offers evidence that lead at 5 ug/dL (half
the official "safe" level) can cause attention deficit in children and
in monkeys; reduced birthweight in children; and hearing loss in
The NRC summarizes a series of recent studies, then says, "Those
studies support the general conclusion that there is growing evidence
that there is no effective threshold for some of the adverse effects of
lead."[1,pg.67] In other words, there is growing evidence that there is
NO level of lead below which no adverse effects occur. If this is true,
it means the only safe level is zero.
One way to get today's "safe" level of lead (10 ug/dL) into perspective
is to compare it to the natural background levels found in the blood of
prehistoric people --people who lived in an environment that had not
been poisoned by the members of the Lead Industries Association.
According to careful measurements of human bones, pre-Columbian
inhabitants of North America had average blood lead levels of 0.016
ug/dL --some 625 times lower than the 10 ug/dL now established
as "safe" for our children. On the face of it, it seems unlikely that
levels of a potent nerve poison 625 times as high as natural background
can be "safe" for children.
The decision to add toxic lead to gasoline could have gone differently
back in 1925. Charles F. Kettering, president of the Ethyl Corporation,
explained the options facing the corporation: "...We will use 12
billion gallons of gasoline this year  and 15 billion next year,
and at the increasing rate we have GOT to do one of two things: We must
build motors which are more efficient--we must build motors of very
much smaller size and sacrifice a great many factors which we now enjoy
in the motor industry, or we must do something which will allow us to
get more work out of the fuel unit. Now, in regard to the building of
such motors, there is nothing of a patentable or unknown thing in the
building of higher-efficiency motors. Our neighbors on the other side
[of the Atlantic Ocean] a few years ago built high compression,
relatively higher efficiency motors, because we shipped to them a
better grade of gasoline than we use in this country."[6,pgs.8,9]
The basic problem was engine "knock." In a high-compression engine, the
fuel tended to explode instead of burning evenly. As a result, the
engine made a "knocking" sound, power fell dramatically and the engine
could eventually be damaged. As Mr. Kettering said, the British (and
later the Japanese) solved this problem by burning a higher grade of
gasoline in a smaller, more efficient engine. The Americans chose
another path: they continued to develop larger, less efficient engines
fueled by lower-quality gasoline, which they improved with an anti-
knock additive. As a result of this basic strategy, Americans
consumed 80% of all the world's leaded gasoline until 1970.[2,pgs.16-17]
Even the decision to select lead as the anti-knock additive could have
gone another way. In 1925, Dr. Alice Hamilton of Harvard, told a lead-
in-gasoline conference, "I would like to make a plea to the chemists to
find something else, and I am utterly unwilling to believe that the
only substance which can be used to take the knock out of a gasoline
engine is tetraethyl lead... I think it is not unreasonable to ask that
our chemists set about it to do away with tetraethyl lead, by finding
something else that will do the same work."[6,pg.99] And Yandell
Henderson of Yale told the same conference that such alternatives
existed: "I have asked some of the chemists, my colleagues in Yale
University, and I have found that lead is not by any means the only
substance which, on theoretical grounds, or even on the basis of
experiments, can be used as an antiknock medium."[6,pg.63]
The real problem was the decision-making process that the corporations
were allowed to follow.
If the corporations had been required by law to study all available
alternatives (a process described in the federal National Environmental
Policy Act of 1969) and then to adopt the least-damaging alternative,
the poisoning of the northern hemisphere could have been averted.
Instead, the corporations poisoned every creature on half the planet
WITHOUT SERIOUS, OPEN DISCUSSION OF HOW THEY MIGHT HAVE BEHAVED
DIFFERENTLY. If they had been required to assess all available
alternatives and then to pick the least-damaging path, every creature
in the northern hemisphere --including every human --would be
healthier, would feel better, and would be smarter today.
The Ethyl Corporation went on to compound its errors. When the
corporation was forced in 1972 to start phasing out leaded gasoline,
Ethyl began selling one of leaded gasoline's components --ethylene
dibromide, or EDB --as a pesticide. Eleven years later, in 1983, EPA
(U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) took EDB off the market because
it readily caused cancer in several species of animals, damaged sperm
cells and sperm production in humans, and harmed reproduction in other
ways. At the time EDB was banned, the U.S. was putting 20 million
pounds of it into soils each year and it was showing up in cake mixes
This is another instance where a proper assessment of alternatives
would have spared the world millions of pounds of a supremely potent
In 1995 the Ethyl Corporation did it AGAIN. The corporation began
marketing a new anti-knock gasoline additive, methylcyclopentadienyl
manganese tricarbonyl, or MMT, a compound of the toxic metal manganese.
According to a group of scientists who have studied the dangers of
manganese, MMT gives us reason for "major concerns." "Inhalation is an
abnormal route of intake for manganese and may be associated with
increased risk of toxicity, particularly to the central nervous system
and the lungs. Certain susceptible subpopulations, such as the young,
the old, and the malnourished, may be at greatly increased risk of
adverse effects from exposure to manganese in the environment."
Ethyl Corporation insists that manganese is safe. However, to this day
Ethyl Corporation also insists that leaded gasoline is safe.
Isn't it time we changed the way corporations make decisions? Shouldn't
we require an assessment of all available alternatives and selection of
the least-damaging? And shouldn't the burden of proof of safety be
placed on the Ethyl Corporation --and others like it --and not on the
public? Where can all this poisoning be taking us?
--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 National Research Council (Bruce A. Fowler and others, editors),
MEASURING LEAD EXPOSURE IN INFANTS, CHILDREN, AND OTHER SENSITIVE
POPULATIONS (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993).
 C.C. Patterson and others, "Lead in Ancient Human Bones and Its
Relevance to Historical Developments of Social Problems with Lead," THE
SCIENCE OF THE TOTAL ENVIRONMENT Vol. 61 (1987), pgs. 167-200.
 In 1970 the U.S. refined 666,730 tons of primary lead production
(including both domestic and imported ores). Secondary production was
597,390 tons. We also imported 244,623 tons of refined metal. Exports
were 7747 tons (0.51% of total domestic "consumption") of refined
metal. See HISTORICAL STATISTICS OF THE UNITED STATES; COLONIAL TIMES
TO 1970; VOLUME 1; Tables M243, M244, M246, M247. Therefore total
domestic "consumption" in 1970 was (666730 + 597390 + 244623 -7747) x
2000 = 3 billion pounds.
In 1989, total "consumption" was 1,283,000 metric tonnes; exports were
29,000 metric tonnes (2.3% of total domestic "consumption"). See
STATISTICAL ABSTRACT OF THE UNITED STATES, 1991, Table 1243. So
domestic "consumption" was (1283000-29000) x 2200 = 2.76 billion pounds.
 "Update: Blood Lead Levels --United States, 1991-1994," MORBIDITY
AND MORTALITY WEEKLY REPORT [MMWR] Vol. 46, No. 7 (February 21, 1997),
pgs. 141-146. See table 2, pg. 143.
 A. Russell Flegal and Donald R. Smith, "Lead Levels in
Preindustrial Humans," NEW ENGLAND JOURNAL OF MEDICINE Vol. 326 (May 7,
1992), pgs. 1293-1294.
 Treasury Department, United States Public Health Service,
PROCEEDINGS OF A CONFERENCE TO DETERMINE WHETHER OR NOT THERE IS A
PUBLIC HEALTH QUESTION IN THE MANUFACTURE, DISTRIBUTION OR USE OF
TETRAETHYL LEAD GASOLINE [PUBLIC HEALTH BULLETIN NO. 158] (Washington,
D.C.: Treasury Department, United States Public Health Service, 1925).
Available from William Davis at the National Archives in Washington,
D.C.: (202) 501-5350. [National Archives Record Group No. 287;
T27.12:158/3S1 [possibly 351?] 24/2316 Box T777. RG 287.]
 Jerome O. Nriagu, "The Rise and Fall of Leaded Gasoline," THE
SCIENCE OF THE TOTAL ENVIRONMENT Vol. 92 (1990), pgs. 13-28.
 Josh Karliner, "Barons of Bromide: A History of Methyl Bromide,"
GLOBAL PESTICIDE CAMPAIGNER Vol. 7, No. 1 (March, 1997), pgs. 1, 14-17.
GLOBAL PESTICIDE CAMPAIGNER is available from Pesticide Action Network,
North American Regional Center, 116 New Montgomery St., #810, San
Francisco, CA 94105; $25/yr for individuals.
 Technically, MMT is a product of Ethyl's "sister" company,
Albemarle. Albemarle was created out of Ethyl in 1994. The history is
convoluted---Albemarle bought Ethyl from GM/DuPont in 1962, changed its
name to Ethyl, and then in 1994 two of the Gottwald brothers split
Ethyl into Ethyl and Albemarle. Albemarle took with it the MMT
business. Personal communication from Josh Karliner, April, 1997.
 Gina M. Solomon, Annette M. Huddle, Ellen K. Silbergeld, and
Joseph Herman, "Manganese in Gasoline: Are We Repeating History?" NEW
SOLUTIONS (Winter, 1997), pgs. 17-25.