In July, 2000, The Nation described what remains a staggering example of public safety being trampled by corporate hunger for profit. Along with other examples like it involving pesticides, asbestos and tobacco, the history of leaded gasoline is a powerful demonstration of what can happen when appropriate and effective government regulation is absent.
Many people believe that unleaded gasoline has had the lead removed. No. Lead was added to gasoline for decades for nefarious reasons described in “The Secret History of Lead“:
- When American corporations General Motors, Du Pont and Standard Oil of New Jersey/Exxon began adding lead to gasoline in the 1920s, they knew that lead is a deadly poison.
Despite a warning from a lab director in the US Public Health Service that it was a “serious menace to public health,” tetraethyl lead was “brought to market without any thought or study as to its public health implications.” Workers at the original Standard Oil tetraethyl lead production plant in 1924 died after “wrenching fits of violent insanity…tremors, hallucinations, severe palsies and other serious neurological symptoms.” The burning of gasoline accounted for 90 percent of the lead placed in the atmosphere from the 1920s through the end of the century, and the EPA estimated in 1985 that as many as 5000 Americans died annually from lead-related heart disease prior to the phase-out of leaded gasoline. Since then, the average level of lead in the blood of Americans has declined more than 75 percent.
- Lead was added to gasoline as a way to increase octane and eliminate engine knock despite the availability of superior alternatives.
By 1921, GM researchers had proved that clean-burning ethanol was “the additive of choice.” As a response, oil and lead companies “covered up and denied, then fought, suppressed and unfairly maligned” its use and promoted tetraethyl lead as the preferred additive. The leaded gas was called simply Ethyl to avoid mention of its poisonous lead content.
- Lead additive was promoted by these companies because it was a patentable source of huge profits.
Ethanol, on the other hand, could not be patented and thus offered no profits. With assistance from public health officials, these corporations “got together and put lead, a known poison, into gasoline for profit.” They deliberately attempted to hide its deadly effects from the American public for more than sixty years in order to maximize the money they made on practically every gallon of gasoline sold.
The phaseout of leaded gasoline in the US began in 1974 when the EPA began requiring the use of unleaded gasoline in new cars equipped with catalytic converters. By the early 1980s, gasoline lead levels had declined by about 80% as a result of both the regulations and the retirement of most cars without catalytic converters. The EPA considered relaxing the standards in response to growing complaints that small refiners were having difficulty complying on time, but this consideration met very strong opposition, both within the Agency and from environmental groups and public health officials. Lead was banned as a fuel additive in the United States beginning in 1996.
When respect for the needs, safety and well-being of others is renounced—by corporate representatives or by individuals—in order to maximize the flow of money to themselves, governments must intervene. To deny or oppose their appropriate use of regulation to “promote the general welfare” is indefensible.