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producers concealed the dangers of lead
- The House of
- by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman, March
- Is there a prosecutor in this country with the guts
to take on the oil and auto companies?
- If you are one such prosecuting attorney, and you are
reading this, go out and buy the current issue of The
Nation magazine. Rip out the 30 page investigative
article titled "The Secret History of Lead," by Jamie
Lincoln Kitman, drop in your standard indictment form,
and then run down to the courthouse and file it.
- That will be the easy part. The companies will then
hire the best white-collar crime law firms in the
business and come after you with all of their resources
to defeat the indictment.
- But reckless endangerment is reckless endangerment.
And the people need a chance to bring justice to those
who perpetrated this atrocity. It will be worth your
while. Given the publicity this case will generate, you
might even be elected to higher office. (For precedents,
see Rudolph Giuiliani, former white-collar crime busting
U.S. Attorney in the Southern District of New York, who
went on to be mayor of New York, and William Weld, former
Assistant Attorney General who went on to become Governor
- Kitman's article is about how the makers of leaded
gasoline -- duPont, General Motors, Standard Oil of New
Jersey (now ExxonMobil), and Ethyl Corporation (which
started out as a joint venture between GM and Standard
Oil) -- systematically suppressed information about the
severe health hazards of their product for decades.
- These companies knew from mid-1920s that leaded
gasoline was a public health menace, yet they went ahead
and put lead in gasoline anyway, to prevent engine
knocking. This despite the fact that safe anti-knock
substitutes were cheaply available. But the companies
rejected them because they would be unprofitable.
- From the 1920s until 1986, when leaded gas was banned
from the market in the United States, lead was spewing
from tailpipes of automobiles, where it entered the
bloodstream of humans. In children, lead lowers IQs, and
increases learning disabilities, hyperactivity and
behavioral problems. In adults, elevated lead levels are
related to blood pressure increases, cardiovascular
disease and heart attacks. Lead expert Dr. Paul Mushak,
in a 1988 report to Congress, estimated that 68 million
children had toxic exposures to lead from gasoline from
1927 to 1987. A 1985 EPA study estimated that as many as
5,000 Americans were dying annually from lead-related
heart disease before the lead phase-out in the United
- Lead was identified as a hazard thousands of years
ago. It was not as if executives at GM and duPont and
Standard Oil and Ethyl didn't know what the hazards were.
In fact, those who worked with lead immediately became
sick. Kitman estimates that dozens of workers died from
lead poisoning. Workers knew that going crazy was an
early sign of lead poisoning. Standard Oil's Bayway
facility in Elizabeth, New Jersey was known in the 1920s
as "the house of butterflies," because, as Kitman told
us, in some cases "when you are experiencing acute lead
intoxication, you start hallucinating, and believing that
you are being attacked by winged insects."
- Workers going crazy and dying created a public
relations nightmare in the 1920s. The papers picked up on
it, and citizens began believing that they were being
poisoned by the lead coming out of their tailpipes. To
save their deadly enterprise, in 1924, the corporations
pulled lead off the market and asked the Surgeon General
to hold a hearing, which he did in May 1925, to consider
what one public health expert called "the single most
important question in the field of public health that has
ever faced the American public."
- And the hearing lasts for six hours and forty five
minutes. The Surgeon General concluded that the question
couldn't be definitively answered and recommended that a
committee of experts be set up. The committee was duly
set up and reported back some months later that a) leaded
gasoline can be manufactured safely, and b) they can't
verify that leaded gasoline won't result in injury and
they can't prove that it will in the short time they
- So, this placates the public, and lead gets back in
gasoline for another forty years. Until the public became
concerned about air pollution --smog -- and the car
companies built catalytic converters. Lead had this
wonderful way of destroying the catalytic converter -- so
one or the other had to go -- and finally, lead met its
- We called the Lead Industries Association to ask
about Kitman's article. They refused to respond. Then we
called Ethyl Corporation, which is still selling
tetraethyl lead as a gasoline additive for sale all
around the world, except in the United States and Europe.
Lloyd Osgood, a spokesperson for the Richmond,
Virginia-based Ethyl Corp., was kind enough to read us a
statement. She called Kitman's piece "a distorted
interpretation of known historic events and documents
that have long been in the public record."
- "The spin is extremely negative and biased and is not
justified by the facts," she said. "Ethyl Corp. has
always been and continues to be a responsible corporate
citizen and the allegations to the contrary in this
article are unfounded."
- But Osgood refused to specify how the article
distorted "known historic events." She even refused to
answer simple questions like: "Is lead dangerous?"
- This is pure corporate b.s. For years, the lead
industry denied that lead in gasoline was making its way
into human bloodstreams. If that's so, why did human
blood lead levels drop off dramatically in North America
after 1986 when lead was banned from gasoline?
- Is there a prosecutor in the house?
- (c) Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman.
Reprinted with permission.
- Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington,
D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter. Robert Weissman is
editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Multinational
Monitor. They are co-authors of Corporate Predators: The
Hunt for MegaProfits and the Attack on Democracy (Monroe,
Maine: Common Courage Press, 1999, http://www.corporatepredators.org)
- Focus on the Corporation is a weekly column
written by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman. Please
feel free to forward the column to friends or repost the
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