By Patricia H Kushlis
Whether or not Beethoven died of lead poisoning remains in dispute but with the passage of the Clean Air Act of 1970, the US required all new cars beginning in 1975 to “contain catalytic converters in their exhaust systems to reduce a range of toxic emissions” including lead. Before then, lead had been added to gasoline to make car engines run more smoothly and avoid “engine knock.” Here’s how it happened. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had led the no-lead-in-gasoline charge – persuading the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – to remove the lead additive from gasoline but this happened only after lengthy and vicious fights with the lead, petrochemical and automotive industries.
The goal, according to Dr. Philip J. Landrigan in a recent article in the Boston College Magazine, was to “reduce American children’s exposure to lead and thus prevent silent brain damage.” The CDC – with which Dr. Landrigan was then affiliated - expected it to take about ten years to get the cars off the road that used leaded gasoline and that, thereafter, the US would witness a modest decline in blood lead-levels in American children. The result, however, turned out to be a massive drop in those lead levels directly corresponding to the decline of cars using leaded gasoline – a drop of 90% of the lead in blood levels over the past forty years.
Moreover, acute lead poisoning among American children became a rarity because lead was removed from paint at about the same time thus reducing cumulative exposure even further.
And what were the other effects of eliminating lead in gasoline? Several, all good and some surprises, according to Dr. Landrigan. They included a rise in children’s IQ scores by five percentage points since the mid-1980s – not just in the US but in the other countries that eliminated lead from gasoline. The increases in children’s IQ scores have directly corresponded with the years those countries eliminated lead in gasoline.
But there has also been an uncannily close parallel between the drop in blood lead levels and the decline in murder rates in countries that have eliminated lead in gasoline (“allowing for a 20 year lag because it’s 20 year olds who commit murder, not babies”) likely because the reduction of lead has improved attention spans and increased the ability to control impulses.
Partnerships and Coalitions
The story, however, of getting the lead out of American gasoline is as much political and economic as scientific and health related. In essence, it required building partnerships or coalitions among people in the medical community, parents, public health officials and teachers. This didn’t happen overnight. Although neither the article by Dr. Landrigan nor another by Susan Vorkper don’t mention this as a factor, in reality to do so would also have required a coordinated public information campaign using mounting scientific data.
Moving from research to every day practice to policy takes an average of 17 years according to Susan Vorkoper, a global health researcher and policy analyst at the National Institutes of Health, in an interview in St. John’s College’s 2015 winter magazine due in part, as in the case of lead poisoning, to the need to overcome strong industry resistance.
In this case, the corporate opposition was ultimately overcome for basically economic reasons as a result of the passage of the 1970 Clean Air Act which required that all new cars have catalytic converters to reduce a number of different toxic emissions. Catalytic converters contain platinum, an expensive metal, and lead ruins platinum. This then caused the auto manufacturers to rethink their support for leaded gasoline and to split from the lead and petroleum producers thereby fracturing a previously united industry-based opposition.
As this story suggests it takes time, timing, research, political and public affairs skills to build a case and accomplish fundamental change. Even then, success is not always a foregone conclusion. In this case, however, getting the lead out of gasoline has made a difference.