Emory Report

December 13, 1999

 Volume 52, No. 15

UVA's Thomson 'gets the lead out' in ENVS lecture

When lead was first introduced as a gasoline additive back in 1923, health officials immediately became alarmed. These concerns were quickly validated, but lead would continue to be used as an octane enhancer for another 72 years. In the end, this saga would encompass partitsan politics, industry money, OPEC and public fear.

In her Dec. 6 talk, "Getting the Lead Out: Understanding Success and Failure in Environmental Policy," sponsored by the environmental studies department, Vivian Thomson of the University of Virginia explained the convoluted history of leaded gasoline in the hope of providing a context for dealing with other environmental issues. With a joint appointment in government and foreign affairs and in environmental sciences, Thomson feels that environmental issues can best be handled from a pragmatic perspective.

As Thomson recounted, the early health concerns regarding lead soon materialized at lead refineries. One plant claimed more than 300 worker deaths and became known as the "house of the butterflies"--hallucinating workers were known to crazily grab for butterflies existing only in their minds. Refinery owners claimed this rash of deaths and bizarre behaviors were the result of worker fatigue or failure to follow safety procedures.

Indeed, lead additive was touted as a "gift of God" for high octane engines, Thomson said. A 1927 ad in Life stated that leaded gas could be found "On sale through responsible oil companies." The health of the population was ignored even though people in the medical community were alarmed that blood levels of lead seemed to be quite high. But since lead could be found in a variety of industrial products, such as paint, Thomson said no direct link could be established between leaded gas and lead levels in human blood.

It was not until the Clean Air Act of 1970 that lead levels in gasoline would finally begin to fall. Told by the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up auto emissions, the automotive industry responded by fitting new car models with catalytic converters, which turn noxious chemicals into less deadly substances. However, the lead in gasoline destroys catalytic converters. Fearing for its survival, the lead additive industry played its own card, Thomson said.

During this attempt to reduce air emmisions, the world was caught up in an energy crisis due to OPEC's control of oil prices. The lead additive industry took out ads in national papers stating that lead removal from gas would cause automobiles to run less efficiently, leading to the waste of more than a million barrels of oil daily. But the automotive giants, with millions invested in catalytic converters, eventually beat back this assault, and in 1973 the EPA required all service stations to sell unleaded gas.

Lead levels would continue to fall until 1985 when a White House task force decided to relax government regulations of industry. But when the EPA decided not to enforce existing standards of lead control, congressional members from both parties became concerned, as did the medical community and the media, Thomson said.

Citizen response was enormous. The EPA received numerous letters voicing diverse opinions from groups across the nation. The EPA responded by reinforcing standards, and by 1995 leaded gasoline was almost nonexistent.

This end result is cause for celebration, Thomson said. By tracking levels of lead in the air and levels of lead in human blood, the impact of gas additives is obvious. From 1976 to 1991 emisions of lead fell by 95 percent; during this same time period, levels of lead found in human blood dropped 98 percent.

From this convoluted history of lead additives in gasoline, Thomson draws lessons that she feels can best be understood within the framework of pragmatism. "Many of the early pragmatists were a different breed of philospher," she said. "They were what is called 'public philosophers.' They wrote on the pressing issues of the day, thereby establishing pragmatism as philosophy in the practical derivative of politics."

The major point Thomson made is that pragmatists do not approach problems with any one set of ethics. At times, they may even discard previous values for newer ones whose employment may yield more substantial results.

"I think we would still feel compelled from a pragmatic perspective," she said, "to press for policy-making tactics that are less obsessed with unachievable analytical decisions; that are less obsessed with exclusive technical discourse; that consistently engage a wide set of public values; that promote public learning; and that include members of the general public as an integral part of the decision-making process."

-Paul Thacker

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