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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Leaded Gasoline, Pt. 2

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood continues his conversation with Jamie Kitman about the history of leaded gasoline, including its surprising effects on cars.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. We continue our conversation now with journalist Jamie Kitman . He's the author of an expose of the secret history of leaded gasoline, published in the March 20th issue of "The Nation" magazine. The gasoline additive tetraethyl lead was sold for more than 50 years by the DuPont corporation, and a subsidiary of General Motors and Standard Oil known as the Ethyl Corporation. Today Mr. Kitman says they've all gotten out of the lead additive business, although it's still made and sold elsewhere in the world. Jamie Kitman says that between the late 1920s and the 1980s, millions of tons of lead came out of the tailpipes of cars in America. Over the same period, an estimated 68 million children suffered from toxic exposure to lead from gasoline. I asked Mr. Kitman how lead levels in American children have changed since the U.S. began to phase out leaded gasoline in the 1970s.

KITMAN: This is the most remarkable part, because you can reason backwards from it to know that all the science that came out of the industry was faulty, wherein they would say that this isn't raising people's lead levels, that people have high lead levels naturally. When the United States started to phase down lead, there's a direct correlation between the amount of lead that was used in the gas, which is a falling number, and people's blood lead levels. Today it's estimated that the average American's blood lead level is roughly 80 percent lower than it was in the height of leaded gasoline's use.

CURWOOD: So, leaded gasoline becomes ubiquitous worldwide. But then to add insult to injury, it turns out that leaded gas is not only bad for people, it's bad for cars.

KITMAN: Well, amusingly, I was interviewing a Ford Motor Company engineer, who told me that -- he asked me, "Do you know why people don't have to change their oil every 3,000 miles any more? Some cars you change the oil every 15,000 miles now. Do you know why spark plugs last 50,000 and 100,000 miles now, as opposed to having to be changed every six months, which used to be the case?" And he said, "That's because they took the lead out of the gasoline." The EPA has estimated that engine life has increased about 150 percent since lead has been removed from gasoline. The days of cars blowing up at 40,000 and 50,000 miles, which was quite common in our lifetimes, is over. And I think that's directly attributable to the removal of lead from gasoline.

CURWOOD: Leaded gasoline was banned in the U.S. completely by 1986. The European Union has just banned it altogether this year. But it's still used throughout Africa, Latin America, Asia. You, in your article you say this is an egregious case of environmental racism.

KITMAN: I do. And clearly, when the United States market dried up and then it became clear that the European market was going to dry up, the companies that sell lead went out of their way to develop their business overseas. And they say as much in their annual reports to shareholders: "We've offset our declining U.S. sales with growing sales in Africa and Mexico." In Africa, 94 percent of the gasoline is leaded. In the United States zero percent is leaded. It's hard to reconcile that.

CURWOOD: Mr. Kitman, you spent a year and a half researching this story. How difficult was it to get it?

KITMAN: It was -- a lot of this stuff is out there, and I think a lot of the strands were just not connected. I think a lot of the people who were studying the lead issue, academics, were not aware of the ethanol history. And you really have to look at them both together to really put the pieces together.

CURWOOD: Did you run into any hostility from DuPont or General Motors or the Ethyl company?

KITMAN: Oh, absolutely. They really don't want to talk about it. But one of the interesting things I found is that General Motors archives are so disorganized, and unlike most large corporations they've never had their own histories done. I interviewed one General Motors executive who had worked there for four decades, who told me that it was his belief that this was deliberate. Because there was so much stuff in the archives that they didn't want to know about, that they liked to keep it that way.

CURWOOD: How did you get access to these company records?

KITMAN: How did I get access to them? A lot of this stuff I have to credit professor William Kovarik, Bradford University in Virginia, who's been through the archives. He shared a lot of documents with me that he had been through. But you know, they are there. A lot of this stuff is there in government archives and in the company archives. You go in and you look at them and that's that. They're very big companies, and while one thinks that a certain level of paranoia is appropriate, they're really not paying very much attention. I think that they really figured this one was swept under the rug, and they had gotten out of the 20th century clean on it.

CURWOOD: I have to ask if the lead companies are at risk of the kind of lawsuits that we've seen against the tobacco industry and against the asbestos industry for exposing people, knowingly exposing people, to toxins.

KITMAN: Well, actually, the first one has just happened. It's actually in an early stage. There was a suit pending in Maryland Circuit Court against the makers of lead paint. And recently the plaintiffs have moved to add the lead gasoline makers as defendants in that case. And that's pending before a judge in Maryland now. Clearly, their own actions indicate that they think that it's an issue; otherwise why would they be restructuring in ways that are only explained by a move to avoid legal liability?

CURWOOD: And by restructuring, you mean that they have divested the profitable parts of their companies away from the entity that makes the lead, so if --

KITMAN: They've separated them, right. On the theory that should they get sued, that their liability will be limited just to the lead companies. And the lead companies as stand-alones are certainly not as big as the insurance companies and some of the coal mines and other things that they've bought.

CURWOOD: Mr. Kitman, what's the lesson in this story?

KITMAN: I think there are several lessons. I think one of the main ones is that it is very risky for society to rely on the scientific assurances of an industry whose product is in question. I think a good parallel might be -- although there are parallels to a lot of industries' history -- tobacco, asbestos, pesticides. But in today's world it's interesting to look at the example of genetically-modified food, wherein there is alleged to be a large body of science proving that it's safe. However, most of the research has been conducted or underwritten by the affected industry.

CURWOOD: Jamie Kitman's article, "The Secret History of Lead," appears in the March 20th issue of the magazine "The Nation." General Motors and Exxon, the successor to Standard Oil, have yet to comment. DuPont faxed us the following statement: "DuPont strongly disagrees with the view of events related to tetraethyl lead in a recent article in The Nation. The history of tetraethyl lead is well-known and has been available to the public for many years. DuPont stands behind its actions as a responsible corporation with respect to this product." By the way, I asked Jamie Kitman one more question about his investigation: how he found out about the story in the first place.

KITMAN: I own a couple of old cars, an old Lancienne, an old MG. And at the time when the lead phase-down was happening, the lead industry was saying that, oh, if you take the lead out of gasoline, there will be catastrophic mechanical problems. So I kept waiting for them to happen and they never occurred. Then in the late 90s, when Europe started phasing down lead, I started seeing the same things -- by which point I had been driving an MG for 13 years without leaded fuel, and had experienced no mechanical problems whatsoever. So it absolutely made me wonder, and I started researching it. And I just couldn't stop.



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