Lead poisoning by Susan Grimsdell

In children’s story books you’re never in any doubt over who are the baddies.  Just looking at the pictures makes you shiver in your shoes and gives kids nightmares.  In real life, unfortunately, it’s impossible to pick them out.   I was reminded of this when I recently read Bill Bryson’s account of lead, as in lead-based paint, and especially, lead-based petrol.  Lead is bad news.  It accumulates in the body and causes all sorts of problems, to the brain, the kidneys, the nervous system, just about everything in fact, in adults, and worse, in children.  Once it’s in the body it’s there forever.

Lead widespread

In 1921 It was discovered that introducing lead to petrol stopped engines from knocking.  At the time, it was already well known that lead, being a neurotoxin, was dangerous.  No worries – by 1923 General Motors, Du Pont and Standard Oil got together to form a company called Ethyl, to make as much tetraethyl lead as the world would buy. 

Damage to children caused by lead

They used the word ‘ethyl’ because ‘lead’ didn’t sound good.  Workers at production factories soon started getting ill and dying, but the company found all sorts of excuses to explain these deaths, none of which had anything to do with lead poisoning. 

Lead was used in children’s toys, paint, plumbing pipes, as solder to seal tin cans, in toothpaste tubes, and, everywhere in the world, in petrol.  Car exhaust fumes spewed lead into the atmosphere and we all breathed it in, including our babies and children.  The Ethyl company was completely aware of the danger inherent in this. 

Man on a mission

Luckily for all of us, one scientist, Clair Patterson, (not employed by Ethyl) chose to research the effect of leaded petrol and other uses of lead.  He examined ice cores that show global atmospheric lead concentrations over a period of hundreds, even thousands of years.  He found that before 1923 there was almost no lead in the atmosphere, but since then, levels had climbed steadily. 

Clair Cameron Patterson

Patterson made it his mission to get lead removed from petrol.  He immediately ran into trouble with all sorts of agencies and individuals that were making big money out of ethyl, including one Supreme Court justice.  His research funding dried up, and the university he worked for was offered bribes to get rid of him.  He was a true hero – he didn’t give up and at last, in 1986 leaded petrol was removed from sale.  That’s more than 60 years after its first use. 

The monster within

For many of us, it was too late.  Americans (as an example) alive today have 625 times more lead in their systems than people 100 years ago.  As lead is known to cause memory loss and other neural/brain problems I can’t help wondering if the current high incidence of Alzheimers is related to our exposure to lead over years and years. 

Coming back to the baddies in my first paragraph – the people running Ethyl, and making billions out of it would be your ordinary business people, nicely dressed, nicely spoken, well-educated.  No horns, no flames coming out of their mouths.  You can imagine meeting one at a party and thinking what a nice guy.  But strip away the trappings, take a close look inside and the monster would be revealed.   

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