There’s a chapter in Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything called “Getting the Lead Out.” Reading just this short chapter I learned a great deal. I learned that even as far back as 1923 businesses were willing to put human beings at risk to continue making a product. I learned that even as far back as the 1920’s businesses would be willing to circumvent all evidence with their own, leaving people confused and uncertain about the safety or risk. I learned that whistle blower scientists that spoke against the use of the product lost all credibility, respect, research funding, etc. They lost basically everything but their “lives” in the process. As is I guess still the case.
Here’s the chilling lowdown on lead:
“Lead is a neurotoxin. Get too much of it and you can irreparably damage the brain and central nervous system. Among the many symptoms associated with overexposure are blindness, insomnia, kindey failure, hearing loss, cancer, palsies, and convulsions. In it’s most acute form it produces abrupt and terrifying hallucinations, disturbing to victims and onlookers alike, which generally then gives way to coma and death. You really don’t want to get too much lead into your system”
Isn’t that great. So my first thought is oh, they just didn’t know. It was 1923, how could these companies (GM, Du Pont, Standard Oil) know how bad lead could be when they decided to create a company that produced leaded gasoline. At this point while I’m reading I consider them to be fairly innocent. They don’t know the consequences, they only know lead runs engines better, they’re just trying something new.
But the funny thing is that they did know. The researcher who had discovered how tetraethyl lead could be used to run engines, Thomas Midgley, had gotten lead poisoning himself. I should say the scary thing is they did know and they decided to continue.
In the meantime, lead was accumulating in the atmosphere. The production workers were being poisoned, growing terribly ill or dying. But production continued anyway.
But the sale of leaded gasoline wasn’t banned in the U.S. until 1986. 1986? That’s 63 years later! And only because some individuals and orgs started to get vocal and stay vocal about it otherwise it would probably still be going on. It was easy to produce and therefore was very profitable.
This gets scarier.
The individual who “invented” tetraethyl lead decided to keep going and outdid himself and created chlorofluorocarbons or CFCs which went into production in the 1930’s and from there was used in refrigerators, air conditioners, deodorant sprays. But to be fair it wasn’t discovered how bad CFCs were until much later.
Still, it’s amazing how much damage one individual managed to create only because what he created went into the hands of others willing to stand behind it so strongly. But I’ve never heard of Thomas Midgely. In fact this is the first time I’ve ever come across his name.
It would be one thing if this sort of situation was an anomaly, but it comes up again and again.
It’s also pretty amazing that tetraethyl lead was still being produced as recently as the year 2000, so to say that anything was learned would be ridiculous. All of this, and nothing was learned? It seems so impossible. But you can’t blame one person. It’s like a nazi concentration camp, too many people are involved. Too many others are silent witnesses. The rest just don’t know. Genocide hasn’t vanished from the earth why would unhealthy products?
Before 1923 there was no lead in the atmosphere, and there was no hole in the ozone layer. Who do you blame?