Let’s take a moment to savor a global victory

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.


  1. kestrel says

    Quote: “Am I being too cynical?”

    I don’t think so. Makes me pretty sad, but I have to agree with you about people fighting against something that is good for their own health.

  2. says

    50 years. That’s about what the US government and others are estimating is the time window to stop increasing CO2 emissions. In a sense, that’s a quick response for an entire global civilization. Not quick enough, though, and there’s no second place award for effort.

    I believe you can buy bottles of tetraethyl lead additive if you have a classic car. Don’t tell the trumpies, or they’ll be rushing to buy the stuff in hopes of owning the libs by putting out enhanced toxins.

  3. says

    The freedom-fetishists

    I doubt they are anything more than contrarians.They don’t understand freedom as well as they would if they really fetishized it.

  4. says

    > I believe you can buy bottles of tetraethyl lead additive if you have a classic car. Don’t tell the trumpies, or they’ll be rushing to buy the stuff in hopes of owning the libs by putting out enhanced toxins.

    I swear that it’s the greatest COVID cure ever! Even better than Forsythia!

  5. billseymour says

    It would have sounded like an outlandish scenario just a few years ago but not anymore.

    That’s the really scary part for me.

  6. blf says

    When Thomas Midgely lied about tetraethyl lead being safe, he did a very Trumpish thing: He washed his hands in the stuff, but failed to disclose he himself had just recovered from lead poisoning. (Later on, as I recall, when freon(?) was introduced, his stunt was to drink the stuff.) The media were already onto the dangers of tetraethyl lead — hence the demonstration — due to a very high rate of illness (including at least one death) at a(? the?) factory which made the stuff — something like 35 out of 40 workers in just a few months. However, no safety studies were required or done, and then all(?) such “studies” for years and years were either done or controlled by the petrol and tetraethyl lead companies — guess what they consistently(?) “found”…

    Midelgy — responsible for both leaded petrol and flourocarbons(? freon?) — was a walking global environmental disaster. (He apparently inadvertently killed himself with some self-invented(? -built?) Rube Goldberg-ish contraption.)

  7. mnb0 says

    “Am I being too cynical?”
    No and yes.
    No, pseudoskeptics make more noise than ever.
    Yes, pseudoskeptics don’t represent entire humanity.

    The funniest thing is those who try to outdo you in cynicism place themselves in the same league as those pseudoskeptics. As I’m in a good mood today I’ll draw the charitable conclusion: they can’t resist making jokes that have beards as long as Methusalem’s (but I’ll love it when they’re going to admit that they are serious!)

  8. garnetstar says

    Not being too cynical, that scenario would surely take place, but there’s a big, big problem with pushing leaded gas now.

    Chemists have known for 500 years that everything has a dose beneath which it is not toxic. So the idea is to find that out for every chemical, then keep human exposure underneath that dose.

    The problem is that lead is unique among all elements and all chemicals: it is so poisonous and so damaging that the “safe” level of exposure to it has been downgraded and downgraded multiple times over the last few decades. Every single time a new study has come out proclaiming that they’ve found the safe exposure limit, later research has shown that that dose is still toxic, and the safe dose must be lower than that.

    Lead alone, among all the chemicals and elements, as of now, has *no known safe exposure dose*. There is no exposure so small that it hasn’t been ruled out as toxic. This has only been done in recent decades, so it wasn’t an issue when leaded gas was first objected to. But it is now. The data is there, it’s well-established, and it’s not just a vague connection to causing cancer, it’s toxicity. Until *some* infinitesimally small exposure to lead is found to be safe (don’t hold you breath), I think we’re safe from idiots trying to bring it back.

    Patrick S. @6, if anyone has a bottle of tetraethyl lead, they should call Haz Mat disposal immediately. Standard lab protocol for handling that chemical is double or triple layers of gloves made of special non-permeable material, and handling it ONLY completely out of the presence of any air, so that you can’t be exposed to fumes or spills (handling it in a chemical hood that removes fumes isn’t enough). Glass containers of it are not allowed, as they might break. You can only carry the (plastic) bottle of it from the storage cupboard to the work station in the lab in a rubber bucket with a handle (you can’t carry it just in your hand), to prevent possibly dropping the bottle. And, even though the bottle is never even opened unless it’s completely out of any exposure to air, respirators are needed. That’s what we do in chem labs for this chemical.

    If you get a drop of that on your skin, or inhale a small amount of fumes, it’s an acute poison and you’ll die right there.

  9. garnetstar says

    Oh, sorry, Marcus @2, I just noticed that you posted that people can get tetraethyl lead! Please tell them not to! Lead is orders of magnitude more toxic that mercury, which most people are scared to death of. So, telling them that might help.

  10. blf says

    @12, “If you get a drop of that [TEL, tetraethyl lead] on your skin, or inhale a small amount of fumes, it’s an acute poison and you’ll die right there.”

    If true as stated, that makes me wonder what Thomas Midgley did in his infamous (and misleading) 1924 press conference (see @10). From Ye Pfffft! of All Knowledge:

    On October 30, 1924, Midgley participated in a press conference to demonstrate the apparent safety of TEL, in which he poured TEL over his hands, placed a bottle of the chemical under his nose, and inhaled its vapor for 60 seconds, declaring that he could do this every day without succumbing to any problems.

    Since he was lying about his own lead poisoning, it seems possible whatever he poured(? washed-in?) and inhaled, was not, as he claimed, TEL. Ye Pffft’s article on TEL says “Tetraethyllead is highly toxic, with as little as 6–15mL being enough to induce severe lead poisoning”, which makes me suspect the dose which results in “you’ll die right there” is rather high compared to Midgley’s dose, presumably either zero (faked) or very very low (highly misleading if not also basically fake).

  11. seachange says

    I was alive during the transition in California. I remember. You are not cynical.

    What caused lead to be removed from gasoline didn’t have a dang thing to do with toxicity. We knew it was toxic.

    Catalytic converters used expensive platinum, and they got destroyed by lead. (they totally got stolen for the platinum and for ‘resale’) Catalytic converters were what was necessary to meet emission guidelines. Emission guidelines did not have a dang thing to do with asthmatics and heart patients dying from lacking oxygen to breathe or acid rain or anything. It had everything to do with “smog is a terrible sounding name and we are not terrible” and “smog smells and looks icky”.

    Gas stations had to be force-legislated to contain at least one unleaded pump. Lines were long and it wasn’t just because we were showing our first signs of petroleum addiction in the middle eastern wars and wars and wars.

  12. johnson catman says

    re garnetstar @13: In the storage closet of my eighth grade science class (around 1972), we found a pint-sized bottle of mercury. It was amazingly heavy when compared to the same-sized bottle of water. Our science teacher allowed us to pour mercury onto the table-tops and play with it, and not just once, but multiple times. Some spilled onto the floor or got lost in the cracks in the tables. I am sure we probably tracked mercury all over that school. In contrast to that, my first college chemistry lab had us using mercury in a J-tube to measure air pressure. The lab instructor was extremely careful with the mercury and instructed us that if any amount spilled, we would need to treat it as the hazardous material that it was. I wondered how my eighth grade science teacher could have been so clueless.

  13. sonofrojblake says

    I wondered how my eighth grade science teacher could have been so clueless.

    How old are you? It’s possible the general attitude changed between eighth grade and college.

    For instance: I clearly remember a couple of toys from when I was a kid. One was a joystick for playing computer games. It looked like the then-standard Atari joystick (the one that came with the 2600/VCS)… but with no base. It was just a stick. You tilted it to indicate up/down/left/right, and the fire button was on the top -- five digital outputs, those were the days. It worked by using mercury tilt switches. Mercury, right there in a toy for kids. Similarly all the shops sold the “mercury maze”, a disc thing about 10″ across and half an inch thick, black plastic one side, clear plastic the other. A maze was raised within it, and the idea was to guide the blob of mercury -- maybe 2ccs of it -- intact to the centre of the maze. Fascinating and very difficult.

    By contrast, a few years ago I was project managing the construction of a chemical plant. Not entirely unexpectedly, when digging the foundations for the area the digger hit a bit of visible free mercury in the soil. Job stopped, area evacuated, even in an outdoor ventilated area. Nobody messes with mercury any more.

  14. blf says

    I recall an incident in University freshman chemistry lab. I cam into the lab one day to find several people in hazmat suits clustered at the opposite end (and opposing side) of the “my” lab bench. Turns out they had just finished cleaning-up a mercury spill from a preceding lab session — I do not recall now precisely what happened, something like a broken thermometer being poured into the sink — but do have a slight recollection of the TA (or “grad turkey” as they were generally known) being very annoyed (not at the hazmat team, but the fool who mishandled the situation after the accident — I got the impression that fool wasn’t the student but their TA).

  15. johnson catman says

    re sonofrojblake @17:

    How old are you? It’s possible the general attitude changed between eighth grade and college.

    The clue to that may be that I was in the eighth grade in 1972 as stated in the first line of my comment. But in case it still eludes you, I am 62.

  16. johnson catman says

    re sonofrojblake @17: After further consideration, it was probably my ninth grade science class (1973), and my first year of college was in 1977. Do you know if the attitudes about mercury significantly changed during that time? I don’t know, so I am honestly asking.

  17. garnetstar says

    blf @14, my guess (because it’s what I would have done) is that Midgely used a solution, probably a dilute one, of TEL, not the pure chemical. It would say “TEL” on the label, with “x% solution in x solvent” in fine print. Very few people would know the difference, and that the actual amount of TEL Midgley was exposing himself to was actually quite low. The pure liquid, however, is very highly toxic. So, you’re right, I’ll bet Midgely faked the dose.

    To above, yeah, when I was in school we used to play with liquid mercury as well. That isn’t toxic at all by skin absorption, and not even so much by oral ingestion (there used to be a medicine called calomel that had mercury salts in it: the idea was for it poison the bad bacteria that were making you sick before it poisoned you.) It’s mercury vapor that is so toxic, but you can only inhale that evaporating from the liquid metal in small doses, so it isn’t an acute poison in that way. They worry, as said, about it getting in cracks in the floor, giving off vapor, and people in the room breathing that in cumulatively.
    Mercury spills can be easily gotten up with dry ice: throw the ice on the spill, the mercury freezes solid and it’s readliy picked up or brushed up--but only lab jocks know that trick. Down the sink, though, I don’t know! Anyway, lead is actually a whole lot worse, especially tetraethyl lead.

    And, johnsonc @16, yes, mercury weighs 13.8 times more than water (which is already pretty heavy.)

    sonofrojblake @18, no, there is. First, asbestos is only an inhalation hazard as fibers. Only if you inhale the fibers is it toxic: you can touch it, or ingest it if it’s not shedding fibers, or even breathe close it if it’s not shedding fibers. Then, from the OSHA fact sheet: “The permissible exposure limit for asbestos is 0.1 fiber per cubic centimeter of air as an eight-hour time-weighted average, with an excursion limit of 1.0 asbestos fibers per cubic centimeter over a 30-minute period.”

  18. garnetstar says

    johnson c, attitudes on splashing mercury around changed in about the mid-1990s. At least, in professional chem labs, although they’re always populated by jocks who think that they’re immune to everything. So, maybe a little eariler than that for the public.

  19. Katydid says

    @15: I was also alive during the transition, but not in California. Unleaded gas was slightly more expensive than leaded, which I remember thinking was stupid for charging more money for leaving something (in this case, lead) out. I remember the ridiculous temper tantrums people threw about having to pay 10 cents more for a tank of gas and how (somehow) that was COMMUNISM.

    Huh, I guess nothing’s much changed in the overall public.

  20. nifty says

    As another example of the transition: I was an undergrad between 1973-77, focused at that time on organic chemistry. Soph year, first year organic, only 2 hoods for a lab with 40 people, open flames in a room with organic solvents, routinely used benzene as a rinsing/cleaning solvent outside of hoods and on ungloved hands, lots of mouth pipetting as routine practice. By the time I was a senior, we didn’t do that with benzene anymore- first data suggesting a link to blood disorders and leukemia was coming out. As a college teacher starting in the late 1980’s, only a few hard core old timers still mouth pipetted. Also, huge changes in how we think about and deal with waste in educational settings. Old building plumbing is still an important health/safety issue. Not only did the traps capture and hold mercury, but people often ran perchlorate compounds down drains which could result in explosive precipitates.

  21. says

    garnetstar @12
    My sarcastic reference to tetraethyl lead being a better COVID cure than Forsythia apparently went over your head.
    In the 2011 movie “Contagion”, Jude Law’s character hyped a homeopathic Forsythia solution as a cure for the (fictional) MEV-1 virus.
    The parallels between Jude Law’s character shilling Forsythia and today’s hucksters shilling hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin etc. are fascinating. We could only wish that today’s hucksters would get the same treatment he got in the movie (arrested for securities fraud).
    I am well aware of the incredible toxicity of tetraethyl lead but there are a huge amount of ignoramuses out there who would swallow it down in an instant if they thought it would cure them of COVID, they simply would not waste the time to read the label…

  22. sonofrojblake says

    @johnson catman: I’m in the UK. I knew what 1972 m meant, but the phrase “eighth grade” is pretty meaningless. (They’ve changed the system in the UK to something similar since I left school, so I have no idea what the system here is any more either -- although given I have a three year old, I’ll be finding out soon enough).

    Re: asbestos, interesting. I think when I did the training course to be the custodian of the asbestos register for the chocolate factory the training materials may have overstated the risk.

  23. Ridana says

    Gasoline was leaded when I was a kid. We had our own gas pump on the farm, and used it as a solvent to clean paint brushes, among other things. As kids on a hot summer day, we’d go stomp on the tar bubbles in the tar/gravel road out front and get it all over our feet and legs. Gasoline took it right off. Lord knows how much lead I probably absorbed as a kid, what with leaded paint too. There weren’t any warnings against it, and since we didn’t die or get sick on the spot, that meant it was ok, right?

    No wonder I’m an idiot. 🙂

  24. johnson catman says

    re sonofrojblake @27: In case it ever comes up again, here in the US, students usually begin in kindergarten then go to first grade when they are six years old. Most students will go through to the twelfth grade to graduate high school. They then move on to college after that.

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