Blog: Leaded gasoline’s sordid history

By Susanne Retka Schill | November 21, 2016

In my last blog, I wrote about the Freedom of Information Act request by the UAI’s attorneys that uncovered evidence of undue influence by the oil industry in the EPA. There’s a long history of this sort of collusion.

An investigative report written in The Nation magazine in 2000 by Jamie Lincoln Kitman is a long, but interesting read. “The Secret History of Lead” describes the maneuvering done to keep lead in gasoline for decades, even though it was known from the very beginning, nearly 100 years ago now, to be poisonous.  As we’ve learned from the water crisis in Flint, Michigan’s, water supply, lead poisoning is a serious problem, partly because lead doesn’t break down over time. Citing a British report, the 2000 magazine article said “ a recent report by the government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry estimated that the burning of gasoline has accounted for 90 percent of lead placed in the atmosphere since the 1920s.”

The article recounts the history of how ethanol was the initial antiknock solution in the 1920s, to be replaced by lead because ethanol could be made by anybody, while the oil companies could gain control of lead supplies. “ The story of TEL’s (tetraethyl lead) rise, then, is very much the story of the oil companies’ and lead interests’ war against ethanol as an octane-boosting additive that could be mixed with gasoline or, in their worst nightmare, burned straight as a replacement for gasoline.”

The story of the scientists’ work and  corporate shenanigans is fascinating. In the ‘20s, for example, less than 30 days passed after the opening of a lead plant in Deepwater, New Jersey, when the first of several lead poisoning deaths of workers occurred. The deaths went unreported because of the plant owner’s “stranglehold on all local media within its domain.”  A few years later, at a different facility manufacturing a different formulation of lead, “more than 80 percent of the Bayway staff would die or suffer severe poisoning.” The article recounts the media coverage and corporate response trying to squelch the controversy. More troubling are the accounts of the federal governments reaction (or lack thereof), particularly the Surgeon General.

All the wrangling over lead’s safety lead to a principle you see in the U.S. where companies accused of selling hazardous products invoke what is known as the Kehoe rule -- an argument used by the lead industry in 1925: “You say it’s dangerous. We say it’s not. Prove us wrong.”   The implications of those 1925 legal arguments are still seen: “In the past fifty years, nuclear power, tobacco, chemical, asbestos, coal, pesticide and automobile interests have adopted strategies similar to the one developed by Kehoe. Clutching most of the technology and all of the research capital in their own hands, they’ll say “Prove us wrong, and we’ll change.” Confronted with damning evidence, they’ll repeatedly challenge the methodology of the studies or the bias of researchers. All of which takes time.”    As the reporter says, citing the growing controversies around GMOs in 2000: “ Once again, the burden of proof is being subtly shifted to the doubters, with the entire world cast in the role of guinea pig.”

The article also digs into the politics and the real-time coverage of the story that took a half century to unfold. There’s a scientist who fought intimidation by the oil industry to get the story out. A 1969 Justice Department suit that listed the four major U.S. auto companies and trade associations as co-conspirators in a plan to delay development and use of air pollution control devices. The article lays out the train of events that ultimately lead to the banishing of lead in U.S. fuel, and the subsequent move to market the products in developing countries where environmental laws are lax.

It's a fascinating and exhausting read. The Urban Air Initiative argues the same is happening today with toxic benzene-containing aromatics used in fuel and the continuing battle to make sure ethanol, the logical, nontoxic alternative, doesn’t gain a greater foothold.