Feeding the future / the example of lead

From Jamie Lincoln Kitman’s “The Secret History of Lead”,  in “The Nation”:

“…when commercial interests ask us to sanction genetically modified food on the basis of their own scientific assurances, just as the merchants of lead once did.”

“The next time you pull the family barge in for a fill-up, check it out: The gas pumps read “Unleaded.” You might reasonably suppose this is because naturally occurring lead has been thoughtfully removed from the gasoline. But you would be wrong. There is no lead in gasoline unless somebody puts it there. And, a little more than seventy-five years ago, some of America’s leading corporations–General Motors, Du Pont and Standard Oil of New Jersey (known nowadays as Exxon)–were that somebody. They got together and put lead, a known poison, into gasoline, for profit.

Lead was outlawed as an automotive gasoline additive in this country in 1986–more than sixty years after its introduction–to enable the use of emissions-reducing catalytic converters in cars (which are contaminated and rendered useless by lead) and to address the myriad health and safety concerns that have shadowed the toxic additive from its first, tentative appearance on US roads in the twenties, through a period of international ubiquity only recently ending. Since the virtual disappearance of leaded gas in the United States (it’s still sold for use in propeller airplanes), the mean blood-lead level of the American population has declined more than 75 percent. A 1985 EPA study estimated that as many as 5,000 Americans died annually from lead-related heart disease prior to the country’s lead phaseout. According to a 1988 report to Congress on childhood lead poisoning in America by the government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, one can estimate that the blood-lead levels of up to 2 million children were reduced every year to below toxic levels between 1970 and 1987 as leaded gasoline use was reduced. From that report and elsewhere, one can conservatively estimate that a total of about 68 million young children had toxic exposures to lead from gasoline from 1927 to 1987.

How did lead get into gasoline in the first place? And why is leaded gas still being sold in the Third World, Eastern Europe and elsewhere? Recently uncovered documents from the archives of the aforementioned industrial behemoths and the US government, a new skein of academic research and a careful reading of that long-ago period’s historical record, as well as dozens of interviews conducted by The Nation, tell the true story of leaded gasoline, a sad and sordid commercial venture that would tiptoe its way quietly into the black hole of history if the captains of industry were to have their way. But the story must be recounted now. The leaded gas adventurers have profitably polluted the world on a grand scale and, in the process, have provided a model for the asbestos, tobacco, pesticide and nuclear power industries, and other twentieth-century corporate bad actors, for evading clear evidence that their products are harmful by hiding behind the mantle of scientific uncertainty.

This is not just a textbook example of unnecessary environmental degradation, however. Nor is this history important solely as a cautionary retort to those who would doubt the need for aggressive regulation of industry, when commercial interests ask us to sanction genetically modified food on the basis of their own scientific assurances, just as the merchants of lead once did. The leaded gasoline story must also be read as a call to action, for the lead menace lives….”

Read more in The Nation.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Feeding the future / the example of lead

  1. Bill Anderson

    This is a great example of why the “free market” cannot be left to regulate itself. The twisted logic of laissez-faire capitalism — that private vices create public good/s — is laid bare with examples like this. The raw milk movement ought to take this to heart, if it intends to be any better than the corporations that currently dominate our economic system.

  2. John

    I thought the video was well produced, but I think the future is a little more complex than the young lady suggests. So, I thought I’d try to figure this out for myself (in a North America context):
    In the days before ‘Big Ag’, it seems to me that agriculture was powered primarily by humans, horses and oxen. Agricultural soils were rich in organic matter but plant nutrients (N, P, K) were poor. Productivity was reasonable in the first year of cultivation, but poor in subsequent years.
    Modern agriculture is powered by diesel fuel, natural gas (for N), mined P and K, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and very few people. Agricultural soils today tend to be depleted in organic matter but are high in plant nutrients because of the use of fertilizer.
    As correctly pointed out, without fossil fuels and mined inputs, modern agriculture is unsustainable in it’s current form. At some point in the future there will be a need to resource food production differently, I agree. In my mind, though,we need to look at agricultural resources separately to get an idea of whether they are disposable or essential.

    Without energy to manufacture or power big equipment, people will have to return to the farm to replace the power that is lost. To me, this is the biggest challenge to ‘sustainable’ methods. Almost noone today wants to do farm work or consider anything except their comfortable urban lifestyle. Farm labour (beyond farm families) is supplied largely by migrant workers or illegal immigrants. Rural depopulation, in my mind, has more to do with the attraction of urban life than it does the rigors of the rural economy. Family farms appear utopian to many, but they are ‘prisons’ to the young and ambitious. Lack of people will be a major road-block here until urban economies fail or Chairman Mao is reincarnated, I’m afraid.
    With the return of labour, then weed control can be done without herbicides. Control of insects and fungal infections will be possible on a small scale, but major infestations/infections will be more difficult.
    Since N, P and K are susceptible to leaching, I see the maintainance of adequate soil nutrients as a huge future challenge. Soil nitrogen can be replenished through nitrogen-fixing plants (primarily perennial legumes), which opens the door on an important role for livestock in sustainable systems (even if they compete for potential human food). P and K on the other hand need to be replenished from off-farm resources. Most ‘sustainable systems’ I know of find creative ways to import P and K, often in feed supplements for livestock. The reality though is that these systems, as well as modern agriculture, are ultimately DEPENDENT upon mined P and K. Without these resources agricultual production will inevitably drop, likely to the point that the world’s need for food cannot be met ( a significant shortfall). To argue otherwise, I believe is wrong.
    Fortunately, the reserves of mineable phosphorus and potash are relatively good. And yes, the world will NEED more fertilizer. We don’t mine P and K for fun, and farmers don’t waste their money on fertilizer because they feel the need to subsidize ‘Big Ag’. It is naive to think all these inputs are convenient money-makers.

    I also had to smile a little at the combine with the wrong header photoshopped into a field of green/immature corn, and the orchard sprayer in the grain field. Sorry, but these little details do detract from credibility.

  3. Question : Is it known that the replacement of lead is itself less harmful ? Or merely acknowledged that it has not been shown to be so ? John Farnham

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