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#540 - History of Precaution -- Part 2, 02-Apr-1997

As we saw last week, the U.S. Public Health Service held a one-day
conference on May 20, 1925, to determine whether public health would be
harmed if oil and automotive corporations added the toxic metal, lead,
to gasoline.[1] (See REHW #539.) By 1925, lead had been a documented
hazard in America for at least 100 years, but the corporations had
discovered that leaded gasoline allowed them to create more powerful
engines, so they started adding lead to gasoline in 1923. In the
manufacture of the lead product (called tetraethyl lead by chemists,
and "ethyl" by the corporations) hundreds of workers were poisoned and
this created headlines. The corporations temporarily suspended sale of
leaded gasoline and the U.S. Public Health Service convened a
conference to determine whether (a) leaded gasoline could be safely
manufactured; and (b) whether lead from automobile exhausts would harm
the general public.

The morning session on May 20 was devoted to speeches by General
Motors, Standard Oil of New Jersey, DuPont, and their new joint
venture, Ethyl Corporation, which they had created to market leaded
gasoline. The afternoon was devoted to discussions of health.

Late in the afternoon, Dr. Yandell Henderson of Yale University
summarized what he had heard, as follows: "We have in this room, I
find, two diametrically opposed conceptions. The men engaged in
industry, chemists, and engineers, take it as a matter of course that a
little thing like industrial poisoning should not be allowed to stand
in the way of a great industrial advance. On the other hand, the
sanitary experts take it as a matter of course that the first
consideration is the health of the people."[1,pg.62]

Various speakers established that: lead would be emitted from
automobile exhausts as a fine dust; lead is a potent brain-damaging
poison and dust is its most dangerous form; when caged laboratory
animals were dosed with automobile exhaust, lead dust built up on the
bottoms of their cages; lead is a cumulative poison; it passes through
the placenta and harms the unborn; it causes low birth weight,
spontaneous abortion and stillbirth. (See REHW #539.) On these points,
there was no disagreement.

However, views were split that day in 1925: the corporations wanted to
press ahead rapidly, putting about 2 grams (1/14th of an ounce) of lead
into every gallon of gasoline. Health officials, on the other hand,
urged caution; they wanted to consider the consequences for public
health. Without giving it a name, health officials in 1925 were
embracing the principle of precautionary action, which says, first,
that the burden of proof of safety should be borne by the proponent of
a new technology, not by the public; and second, that, where there are
threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of scientific certainty
should not be used as an excuse for postponing measures to prevent
environmental degradation.[2]

For example, Yandell Henderson ended his afternoon talk by describing a
recent paper by Dr. Alice Hamilton (Harvard professor, and one of the
nation's acknowledged experts on lead) in the most recent JOURNAL OF
THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION: "In that article, Doctor Hamilton
expresses the matter as fully and as clearly as anyone possibly can. In
the last sentence of her paper she sets up this very simple proposition
that this substance, this new industrial hazard, should not be put into
general use, or its use should not be extended until we have adequate
and full information assuring us that we are not introducing another
health hazard into our daily lives."[1,pg.66] A clear statement of the
precautionary principle.

Professor Joseph C. Aub of Harvard calculated that if all the gasoline
to be sold in 1926 were leaded, then 50,000 tons of lead would be
spewed as a fine dust across America's highways, roads and urban
streets. "I am not certain that this would cause poisoning," said
Professor Aub, "but whether it would cause poisoning is a very serious
question.... It seems to me that this should be very thoroughly
investigated before tetraethyl lead is again put on the
market."[1,pgs.72-73] Another clear statement of the precautionary

The American Federation of Labor (AFL) had two representatives at the
conference, both of whom embraced the precautionary principle:

Grace M. Burnham, representing the Workers' Health Bureau of the AFL,
said, "...I think that the United States should be self-respecting
enough to realize that, when there is a public health hazard involved
which affects the entire population, that hazard ought to be
investigated out of public funds and by a responsible public
agency. ...And I believe that until that time, and until the
manufacture, distribution, and use of tetraethyl lead has been proved
conclusively to be safe, its use should be discontinued."[1,pg.95]

Mr. A.L. Berres, representing the Metal Trades Department of the AFL,
said, "I feel that, as has been stated here by some of the previous
speakers, until such time as it can be definitely determined that there
is no hazard in the manufacture and handling of this gas [leaded
gasoline], its use ought to be prohibited...."[1,pg.96]

Dr. Haven Emerson, professor of public health at Columbia University in
New York City summarized, "I presume that it is the inclination of
every health officer to urge a continuance of the cessation of the use
or sale of the ethyl gasoline which has been voluntarily determined
upon by the company."[1,pg.84]

In sum, in 1925, the public health community, as represented at the May
20th conference, urged the principle of precautionary action: faced
with a known hazard of unknown size, they urged that the hazard by

The corporations, on the other hand, used arguments that are still
common today:

** The dangers have not been proven;

** Animal studies cannot tell us what we need to know about humans;

** Efficiency requires us to adopt new technologies even though some
people may have to be sacrificed;

** People should act strictly upon available facts, not upon fears for
the future or opinions about what MIGHT occur.

Sometimes these arguments were combined. For example, Frank A. Howard
representing the Ethyl Corporation, said "Our continued development of
motor fuels is essential in our civilization.... Now, as a result of
some 10 years' research on the part of the General Motors Corporation
and 5 years' research by the Standard Oil Co., or a little bit more, we
have this apparent gift of God--...of tetraethyl lead...

"...Because some animals die and some do not die in some experiments,
shall we give this thing up entirely?... I think it would be an unheard-
of blunder if we should abandon a thing of this kind merely because of
our fears.... Possibilities can not be allowed to influence us to such
an extent as that in this matter. It must be not fears but facts that
we must be guided by. I do not think we are justified in trying to
reach a final conclusion in this matter on fears at all; nor are we
justified in saying that we will cease this development because of
fears we entertain. This development must be stopped, if it is stopped
at all, by proofs of the facts."[1,pg.106]

Dr. Robert Kehoe, a medical consultant to the Ethyl Corporation, gave a
similar argument: "I must say, from the standpoint of industry, that
when a material is found to be of this importance for the conservation
of fuel and for increasing the efficiency of the automobile it is not a
thing which may be thrown into the discard on the basis of opinions. It
is a thing which should be treated solely on the basis of

Since the "facts" could not include any poisonings until such
poisonings had already occurred (until they occurred, they would be
nothing more than speculative "fears" or "opinions"), the argument for
basing policy strictly on "facts" produced a policy of experimenting on
the public and waiting for the sick and the dead to accumulate. This,
then, became the official way of doing business in the U.S. Today the
language is slightly different; we hear calls for policy based
on "sound science" (not on "facts") but it is the same argument.

Shortly after the May conference, Dr. Emery Hayhurst --a paid
consultant to the Ethyl Corporation --wrote an unsigned editorial for
the AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH titled "Ethyl Gasoline."[4] (He
was a member of the JOURNAL's editorial board.) In it, he described
newspaper advertisements by the Ethyl Corporation which claimed that
leaded gasoline was being used around the country with "complete safety
and satisfaction." Hayhurst's editorial concluded, "Observational
evidence and reports to various health officials over the country,
previous to and following the above advertisements have, so far as we
have been able to find out, corroborated the statement of 'complete
safety' so far as the public health has been concerned."

The May, 1925, conference ended with a unanimous resolution calling
upon the U.S. Surgeon General to appoint a seven-member blue-ribbon
panel to render an opinion on the dangers of lead by January 1, 1926.
For about six months, the committee studied 252 garage mechanics,
filling station attendants and chauffeurs in Dayton and Cincinnati and
concluded, "There are at present no good grounds for prohibiting the
use of ethyl gasoline." In sum, the "facts" argument overwhelmed the
precautionary principle.

In June, 1926, GM, DuPont, Standard Oil of New Jersey and their joint
venture, the Ethyl Corporation, started selling leaded gasoline again,
and they continued to do so until Congress finally outlawed it
completely in 1989.[5] They still sell their brain-damaging product in
third-world nations today. Between 1926 and 1985, 7 million metric tons
of toxic lead dust (15.4 billion pounds) were distributed into the
environment by the automobile corporations.

In 1965, MIT professor Clair C. Patterson examined the situation and
concluded that "the average resident of the United States is being
subjected to severe chronic lead insult."[6] Patterson went
on, "Intellectual irritability and disfunction are associated with
classical lead poisoning, and it is possible, and in my opinion
probable, that similar impairments on a lesser but still significant
scale might occur in persons subjected to severe chronic lead insult."
Subsequent studies have confirmed and reconfirmed this view.

The period of greatest lead use was 1945-1971, after which it began to
decline. In those years, 165,000 to 275,000 TONS of lead dust spewed
from the exhaust pipes of American automobiles EACH YEAR. Americans
born during these years have 300 to 1000 times as much lead in their
bodies as pre-Columbian indigenous people had.[7] Thus the generation
of decision-makers in power today --in government and in corporations --
is made up of people who are suffering mental irritability and
disfunction as a result of severe chronic lead insult. Reviewing the
history of the past 25 years, it seems clear that the nation and the
world have already paid a terrible price for their irritability and
disfunction. Leadership by the most lead-damaged (those born around
1970) lies just ahead.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] Treasury Department, United States Public Health Service,
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.]

[2] See David Freestone and Ellen Hey, "Origins and Development of the
Precautionary Principle," in David Freestone and Ellen Hey, editors,
and Boston: Kluwer Law International, 1996), pgs. 3-15.

[3] David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, "A 'Gift of God'?: The Public
Health Controversy over Leaded Gasoline during the 1920s," AMERICAN
JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH Vol. 75, No. 4 (April 1985), pgs. 344-352.

[4] "Ethyl Gasoline," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH Vol. 15 (1925),
pgs. 239-240. Rosner and Markowitz, cited above, pg. 347 identify
Hayhurst as the author of the anonymous editorial, based on his
correspondence with R.R. Sayers of the U.S. Bureau of Mines.

[5] Jerome O. Nriagu, "The Rise and Fall of Leaded Gasoline," THE
SCIENCE OF THE TOTAL ENVIRONMENT Vol. 92 (1990), pgs. 13-28.

[6] Clair C. Patterson, "Contaminated and Natural Lead Environments of
Man," ARCHIVES OF ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH Vol. 11 (September 1965), pgs.

[7] Bruce A. Fowler and others, MEASURING LEAD EXPOSURE IN INFANTS,
Academy Press, 1993), pgs. 14-15, 107.

Descriptor terms: lead; precautionary principle; general motors;
dupont; ethyl corporation; standard oil of new jersey; endocrine
disruptors; hormone disruptors; hormones; tetraethyl lead; gasoline;
public health; epa; robert kehoe; joseph aub; automobiles; oil
industry; alice hamilton; e.r. hayhurst; r.r. sayers; bureau of mines;
u.s. public health service; yandell henderson; american federation of
labor; afl; grace burnham; a.l. berres; haven emerson;