The sad history of leaded gasoline

On the frosty morning of Dec. 9, 1921, in Dayton, Ohio, researchers at a General Motors lab poured a new fuel blend into one of their test engines. Immediately, the engine began running more quietly and putting out more power.

The new fuel was tetraethyl lead. With vast profits in sight—and very few public health regulations at the time—General Motors Co. rushed gasoline diluted with tetraethyl lead to market despite the known health risks of lead. They named it “Ethyl” gas…

It has been 100 years since that pivotal day in the development of leaded gasoline. As a historian of media and the environment, I see this anniversary as a time to reflect on the role of public health advocates and environmental journalists in preventing profit-driven tragedy…

When GM began selling leaded gasoline, public health experts questioned its decision. One called lead a serious menace to public health, and another called concentrated tetraethyl lead a “malicious and creeping” poison…

…Public health concerns continued to build in the 1970s and 1980s when University of Pittsburgh pediatrician Herbert Needleman ran studies linking high levels of lead in children with low IQ and other developmental problems. Both Patterson and Needleman faced strong partisan attacks from the lead industry, which claimed that their research was fraudulent.

Both were eventually vindicated when, in 1996, the US officially banned the sale of leaded gasoline for public health reasons.

The leaded gasoline story provides a practical example of how industry’s profit-driven decisions—when unsuccessfully challenged and regulated—can cause serious and long-term harm. It takes individual public health leaders and strong media coverage of health and environmental issues to counter these risks.

Deadly practices…and the potential for competition to profit from opposition to such practices vary from industry to industry. As do the opportunities from craft and staff. It’s still appropriate to fight for investigation and regulation at every opportunity.

Over a million kids in the US have lead poisoning — We’re only treating half of them


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❝ We’ve long known that despite all our efforts to clean up lead, we have a serious problem with lead poisoning in American children — it’s an egregious and preventable public health issue that just won’t go away.

And it seems the problem is even worse than we thought. Researchers at the Public Health Institute reported…in the journal Pediatrics that the overall number of children with elevated blood lead levels as of 1999-2000 in the US was 1.2 million, or double what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had reported. (The number is likely even higher now, since testing rates have…declined since 2000.) These kids who are never tested or reported to the CDC also aren’t receiving treatment.

❝ Some states are doing much worse than others, according to the researchers. In the 11 states in dark blue on the map below, including Arizona and Florida, more than 80 percent of children with lead poisoning were not tested by their pediatricians or local health departments. For the other 28 states with data (in medium and light blue), anywhere from 40 to 60 percent of lead-poisoned children weren’t tested.

As for the 12 states in gray, researchers were unable to determine how many cases of lead poisoning were missed, because these states don’t share any data with the CDC…

Perish the thought these turd-brains Americans persist in electing and re-electing actually do something modern about healthcare legislation. Like make it uniform and nationwide. Require states to participate and provide information.

❝ What researchers have learned in recent years is that no level of lead is safe for children. Studies have even shown lead concentration in the blood as low as 2 micrograms per deciliter of blood (μg/dL) can lower IQ in children. And once children have blood lead levels of 5 μg/dL and above (what’s now considered lead poisoning), they can suffer severe neurological damage in the form of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorders.

❝ How did the counting of lead-poisoned children get so bad? For one, testing for lead is not legally required in most of the US…And…public health departments aren’t asking if there’s missing data when they turn things over to the CDC…

❝ Civil engineers have estimated that overhauling America’s drinking water system and bringing it up to code will cost at least $1 trillion over the next 25 years, but if these investments aren’t made, we risk continuing to poison children with dangerous levels of lead.

Not that this is a priority for Congressional politicians whose single most pressing task — Republican or Democrat – is raising sufficient funds for re-election.

The next Flint, Michigan is in Indiana — and the cover-up is 40 years old!


Click to enlargeNORTHWEST INDIANA GENEALOGICAL SOCIETY, CBS CHICAGO

Akeeshea Daniels first suspected something was off when her two toddlers came down with scarlet fever. It was 2004, and she just moved her family into a spacious public housing complex in East Chicago, Indiana.

“I looked it up. Scarlet fever hasn’t been a problem since the ‘50s,” she said. “It was something straight out of a history book.”

But when she brought her concerns to the East Chicago Housing Authority — the manager of her public housing complex— she was brushed off…

The next decade was rife with mysterious family health issues: Ear infections, upper respiratory problems, throat infections. Her son was put on ADHD medication when he was seven. At any time, Daniels or one of her three children were sick with something they couldn’t kick. Just last month, Daniels took her now-18-year-old son to the emergency room for severe stomach cramps, and left with no better understanding of what was wrong.

It wasn’t until the last week of July that Daniels got her answer, in the form of two letters.

The first, sent by the Environmental Protection Agency, told her that the soil surrounding her home had been contaminated with toxic levels of arsenic and lead since at least 2014. The second, penned by East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland, informed Daniels that she and hundreds of fellow residents in the West Calumet Complex where she lives would be “temporarily relocated” due to the public health risk. The following day, the city posted a notice that the entire WCC complex was going to be demolished after tenants leave.

Since 1920 this neighborhood has been home to one or more lead-based industries. Polluting the air, killing those who worked in plants fouled with the poisonous element, torn down and leaving behind a soil bank paying interest in lead contamination often more than 200 times the allowable level.

Politicians, generations of politicians knew about the contamination. There was always a reason to do nothing. There never was a reason to inform the people – mostly poor and Black – living on top of a minefield of infection and illness.

Local government did nothing. The state did nothing. The feds performed minimal tasks when pushed and nothing more for decades. And now it’s time for the chickens to come home to roost and – at a minimum – pick up the tab for ailments afflicting these families until they die.

Assign responsibility. Make those responsible pay for their crimes!