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#539 - History of Precaution -- Part 1, 26-Mar-1997

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has issued a major new
report about hormone-disrupting chemicals. The report concludes that no
action is needed to protect public health or the environment from the
dangers of such chemicals.[1] Instead, more study is needed, the report

In birds, fish, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals, including humans,
the body regulates itself by sending hormones through the blood stream.
Hormones are natural chemicals, present in very low concentrations
(measured in parts per trillion), that carry messages to turn on and
off many essential bodily processes. In recent years a large number of
studies has shown that vertebrates (animals with a backbone) can
confuse some common industrial chemicals with hormones, thus disrupting
normal chemical messages.

As a result of hormone disruption, many bodily functions can be turned
on or off at the wrong time, resulting in birth defects, cancers,
deformed sex organs, sterility, reduced mental capacity, immune system
damage and other serious health problems.[2]

How can scientists learn about these effects? Because of international
laws developed during the WW II Nuremburg Trials, controlled
experiments on humans are no longer permitted. Therefore, evidence of
hormone disruption must be gathered by observing effects in wildlife,
by experimenting on laboratory animals, and by observing "natural
experiments," which occur when workers are exposed to chemicals on the
job, or when large numbers of people are exposed to pharmaceuticals
that are mistakenly thought to be safe.

To prepare its latest report, EPA reviewed 300 scientific studies of
hormone disruption. Dr. Robert Huggett, EPA's assistant administrator
for research, told the NEW YORK TIMES that these 300 studies
"demonstrate that exposure to certain endocrine [hormone] disrupting
chemicals can lead to disturbing health effects in animals, including
cancer, sterility, and developmental problems."[3]

One might reasonably ask, if 300 studies show that exposure to certain
hormone-disrupting chemicals can cause cancer, sterility and
developmental problems in animals, shouldn't public health authorities
take precautionary action to prevent further exposures while studies
continue? With 300 studies indicating serious problems, wouldn't it be
reasonable to limit further exposure to these chemicals?

Historical evidence indicates that this is not how the public health
system operates in the U.S. The principle of precautionary action was
rejected by U.S. political and public health authorities 70 years ago.
The historical record is very clear on this point.

The issue 70 years ago was whether General Motors (GM), Standard Oil of
New Jersey, and the DuPont corporation should begin putting tetraethyl
lead into gasoline. At that time, the toxicity of lead had been well-
established for 100 years,[4,pg.76] but a new gasoline additive was
needed by the automobile and petroleum corporations and lead suited
their purposes.[4,pg.6]

In 1923, the automobile industry was booming. In 1916, 3.6 million cars
were registered; in 1920 the number was 9.2 million and by 1925 it
would be 17.5 million.[5] Prior to 1920, Ford had grabbed the lion's
share of the market by mass producing the standardized Model T but
General Motors developed a successful strategy for overtaking Ford. In
the words of GM chairman Alfred Sloan, GM created demand "not for basic
transportation but for progress in new cars for comfort, convenience,
power and style."[6,pg.344] In the search for greater horsepower, GM
developed higher-compression engines. However, with ordinary gasoline,
high-compression engines developed an annoying "knock" because the
gasoline burned explosively. So GM chemists searched systematically for
a gasoline additive that would make gasoline burn evenly in high-
compression engines, eliminating "knock." On February 1, 1923, in
Dayton, Ohio, leaded gasoline went on sale for the first time.[4,pg.90]

Leaded gasoline was produced by the Ethyl Corporation --a joint venture
of GM, Standard Oil of New Jersey, and DuPont.[4,pg.105] Tetraethyl
lead is at least as toxic as normal metallic lead, but with this
difference: tetraethyl lead is a volatile liquid, readily absorbed
through the lungs and skin. Almost immediately, workers began to be
poisoned. At Standard Oil's Bayway, N.J., facility, 5 workers died and
35 suffered severe palsy, tremors, hallucinations and other serious
symptoms of nerve damage. Several of these workers spent the rest of
their lives confined in insane asylums. One of the supervisors at the
Bayway facility told the NEW YORK TIMES that "these men probably went
insane because they worked too hard."[6,pg.345] At DuPont's Deepwater,
N.J., plant, more than 300 workers were poisoned by tetraethyl lead.
DuPont workers dubbed the plant "The House of Butterflies" because so
many workers had hallucinations of insects. The NEW YORK TIMES reported
that 80% of the workers at DuPont's lead plant were poisoned.[6,pg.347]

These industrial poisonings created headlines nationwide and public
health officials became apprehensive about the prospect of treating
billions of gallons of gasoline with tons of tetraethyl lead, which
would be released into the air along with the exhaust fumes.

In 1924, General Motors and DuPont paid the federal Bureau of Mines to
investigate the hazards of lead from automobile exhausts.[4,pg.25] The
Bureau of Mines agreed to investigate and accepted a stipulation by
Charles Kettering, president of the Ethyl Corporation: "...the Bureau
[shall] refrain from giving out the usual press and progress reports
during the course of the work, as [Ethyl Corporation] feels that the
newspapers are apt to give scare headlines and false impressions before
we definitely know what the influence of the material will
be."[6,pg.345] Further, the Bureau agreed never to mention the word
"lead" in its reports but to use only the trade name "Ethyl." Further,
Ethyl Corporation insisted that "all manuscripts, before publication,
will be submitted to the Company for comment, criticism, and
approval."[6,pg.345] The Bureau of Mines agreed. During an 8-month
period, the Bureau exposed monkeys, dogs, rabbits, guinea pigs, and
pigeons to automobile exhaust on 188 occasions, half for 3 hours at a
time and half for 6.

The Bureau reported finding no evidence of lead poisoning, and no
accumulation of lead, in any of the animals.[4,pg.27] The NEW YORK
TIMES reported the Bureau's results November 1, 1924, with this
headline: "No Peril to Public Seen in Ethyl Gas/ Bureau of Mines
Reports After Long Experiments with Motor Exhausts/ More Deaths
Unlikely."[6,pg.346] The TIMES also reported that "the investigation
carried out indicates the danger of sufficient lead accumulation in the
streets through the discharging of scale from automobile motors to be
seemingly remote."[6,pg.346]

Despite this reassuring news, public health authorities remained
concerned about the prospect of putting millions of pounds of toxic
lead in the form of a fine dust into the streets of every American city
and town.

Therefore, the U.S. Public Health Service convened a conference May 20,
1925 to discuss the issue. Just before the conference, Standard Oil
announced it was temporarily suspending the sale of leaded gasoline.

Here in summary is what the conference revealed:

** Charles F. Kettering, president of the Ethyl Corporation, pointed to
the unique properties of tetraethyl lead as an anti-knock additive.
Other additives gummed up the engine, but the lead compounds passed out
through the exhaust, leaving the engine clean, he said.[4,pg.8]

** Mr. Kettering said American automobiles would burn 15 billion
gallons of gasoline in 1926.[4,pg.9]

** Lt. Col. E.B. Vedder, chief of the U.S. Chemical War Service, said
lead is a cumulative poison.[4,pg.31]

** Robert Kehoe, a medical consultant to GM and to the Ethyl
Corporation, confirmed that "in sublethal dose, lead is

** Joseph C. Aub of Harvard University emphasized that "lead is an
accumulative poison".[4,pg.72]

** Robert Kehoe established that lead passed through the placenta of a
rabbit, contaminating unborn rabbits with lead if the pregnant mother
were exposed.[4,pg.52]

** Robert Kehoe established that pregnant rabbits exposed to lead had
abortions, miscarriages, and premature births.[4,pg.54]

** Robert Kehoe, the industry's consultant, acknowledged that poisoning
by tetraethyl lead is the same as other lead poisoning: "In those cases
in which absorption is present over a long period of time the symptoms
do not differ strikingly from the symptoms in chronic lead
poisoning....," Kehoe said.[4,pg.80]

** Alice Hamilton of Harvard University --one of the country's
acknowledged experts on lead poisoning --said, "...lead is a slow and
cumulative poison and... it does not usually produce striking symptoms
that are easily recognized."[4,pg.98]

** E.R. Hayhurst from Ohio State University made the point that serious
lead poisoning "is most apt to occur in cases using lead in the form of
a dust."[4,pg.89]

** R.R. Sayers of the U.S. Bureau of Mines described experiments in
which 5 times the normal amount of tetraethyl lead was added to
gasoline and animals were forced to breathe the exhaust fumes. "The
dust from the floor of the test chamber contained 10.5% of lead within
six months without cleaning," Sayers said.[4,pg.27]

** Joseph Aub of Harvard calculated that 15 billion gallons of leaded
gasoline would release 50 thousand tons of lead dust each year.

** David Edsall, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health,
summarized as follows:

"The only conclusion that I can draw from the data presented here to-
day is that in the question of the exhaust... I can not escape feeling
that a hazard is perfectly clearly shown thus far by what has been
reported here to-day, that it appears to be a hazard of considerable
moment, and that the only way that it could be said that it is a safe
thing to continue with that hazard would be after very careful and
prolonged and devoted study as to how great the hazard is."[4,pg.77]

The conference resolved unanimously that the Surgeon General should
appoint a seven-member panel to determine the dangers of leaded
gasoline by January 1, 1926, and, until then, the sale of leaded
gasoline should remain suspended. At the time, it seemed like a great
victory for the principle of precautionary action. But it was not to

[To be continued]

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


[1] Thomas M. Crisp and others, SPECIAL REPORT ON ENVIRONMENTAL
96/012] (Washington, D.C.: Environmental Protection Agency, Risk
Assessment Forum, February, 1997). Available via the internet:
http://www.epa.gov/ORD/webpubs/endocrine/ .

[2] See RACHEL'S #249, #263, #264, #279, #323, #334, #372, #377, #380,
#390, #393, #405, #438, #441, #446, #447, #448, #453, #457, #462, #471,
#475, #477, #485, #486, #487, #490, #491, #498, #499, #512, #536.

[3] Associated Press, "Hormone Disruptors Require Additional Study, EPA
Says," NEW YORK TIMES March 14, 1997, pg. A26.

[4] 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.]

(Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975), Series Q-
153, pg. 716.

[6] 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.

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;
david edsall; principle of precautionary action;