The news can be depressing so I thought we could use a bit of good cheer. The United Nations announced that the world has finally eliminated the use of leaded gasoline. Algeria was the last country to do so in July.
When in 1921 engineers at General Motors discovered that adding lead to gasoline improved engine performance, it was already known that lead was toxic but they went ahead with it anyway, arguing that small amounts were not harmful. That was wrong. It became increasingly realized that the copious amounts of lead that were being released into the atmosphere was finding its way into people, leading to all manner of problems, including lower IQ and a propensity for violence. (I wrote about this back in 2014.)
Leaded petrol causes heart disease, stroke and cancer. It also affects the development of the human brain, especially harming children, with studies suggesting it reduced 5-10 IQ points. Banning the use of leaded petrol has been estimated to prevent more than 1.2 million premature deaths per year, increase IQ points among children, save USD 2.45 trillion for the global economy, and decrease crime rates.
Leaded gasoline started to be eliminated around the 1970s beginning in the developed world but was slow to spread elsewhere until 2002, when the United Nations started a program to eliminate it globally. That year, 117 countries were still using it. After 10 years, only six countries still used it but it took almost another ten years to get them also to eliminate it.
A successful global effort to end a practice that harmed the health of everyone and had long-term serious consequences for children is really something to be hailed and relished.
But I wonder if such a push had been mounted now, given the anti-science climate we live in, whether the outcome might not have been as good. In the US there would be groups, funded by the gas and auto industries, who would unleash armies of lobbyists to argue that it harmed their business because it made their products more expensive and lowered the performance. And some person would publish a ‘study’ based on a small sample that seemed to suggest an inverse correlation between lead in the body and cancer and tout that study as ‘proving’ that lead was actually good for you. We would then be off to the races. The freedom-fetishists would come out of the woodwork arguing that the government had no right to try and eliminate lead and that having leaded gasoline and breathing leaded air was their God-given right and that people should be able to breathe it without the government intervening. Conspiracists would then claim that the anti-lead advocates were part of some sinister international cabal who were trying to kill people by eliminating the cancer-fighting lead. That craziness would then spread to the rest of the world and since governments have little stomach to deal with controversies, the whole effort would have ground to a halt.
Am I being too cynical? I would like to think so but I fear I am not. It would have sounded like an outlandish scenario just a few years ago but not anymore.