The House of Butterflies
by Russell Mokhiber and Robert Weissman, March 2000
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 of Massachusetts.)
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 States.
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 have.
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 match.
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?
© 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)
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