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Global Lead Network: The Secret History of Lead: The Hall of Fame

The Secret History of Lead: A Special Report from The Nation

The Hall of Fame

Sounding the Early Warning on TEL

Yandell Henderson. 1873-1944. Chairman, Medical Research Board, US Aviation Service WW1, consultant, Bureau of Mines. Supervised hundreds of poison-gas experiments, developed first Army gas mask, which he personally tested in a chamber filled with chlorine gas. Professor of applied physiology, Yale. Approached by Ethyl to study TEL, he insisted on research freedom; offer withdrawn. Most insightful critic of TEL after its introduction. Criticized industry funding of research. Identified nature of lead hazard sixty years before its ban and predicted that “conditions will grow worse so gradually and the development of lead poisoning will come on so insidiously (for this is the nature of the disease) that leaded gasoline will be in nearly universal use and large numbers of cars will have been sold that can run only on that fuel before the public and the Government awaken to the situation.” Refused to buy leaded gasoline and planned trips so as to be able to stop at Amoco stations, which carried unleaded gas.

Pioneering Early Studies of Industrial Poisons

Alice Hamilton. 1869-1970. Physician at 24, groundbreaking work in industrial medicine and pathology. Conducted first survey of use and effects of poison in US industry. Hired in 1910 by State of Illinois to study lead trades. Shocking findings resulted in new regulations, minimum safety standards. First woman faculty member at Harvard Medical School in 1919 (never tenured). Angered American Institute of Lead Manufacturers by issuing report, which that institute had funded, showing that lead accumulated in the bones and tissues of those exposed to it and was neither metabolized nor excreted. Early critic of tetraethyl lead use in gasoline. In 1925 told TEL makers, who claimed factories could be made safe: “You may control the conditions within a factory. But how are you going to control the whole country?” Also, “Where there is lead some case of lead poisoning sooner or later develops, even under the strictest supervision.”

Dating the Earth—and Discovering Lead Contamination

Clair Patterson. 1922-1995. Geochemist, Cal Tech professor. Definitively dated Earth as 4.55 billion years old. Aided by new generation of mass spectrometers and insistence on strict cleanliness so as not to contaminate samples. Scrupulous, incorruptible and methodical; basis for character Sam Beech in Saul Bellow novel The Dean’s December. An asteroid and an Antarctic mountain peak named after him. Stumbled on heavy planetary lead contamination while dating Earth; detailed dust route to lead exposure, concluded industrial man has raised his lead burden 100 times and atmospheric lead 2,000 times. Measured lead content in bones of 1,600-year-old Peruvian Indians. His 1965 work “Contaminated and Natural Lead Environments of Man,” in Archives of Environmental Health, assailed by industry but cited in 230 articles, blew the lid off forty years of industry-funded lead science. Resisted subsequent industry attempts to buy, fire and isolate him. Hired by NASA to analyze moon rocks. Quote: “It is not just a mistake for public health agencies to cooperate and collaborate with industries in investigating and deciding whether public health is endangered—it is a direct abrogation and violation of the duties and responsibilities of those public health organizations.”

Exposing Lead-Industry ‘Science’

Herbert Needleman. 1927-. Pediatric neurologist, University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, University of Pittsburgh. Published 1972 article in Nature proposing that dental-lead levels be used to estimate body lead burden after exposure had ended; harangued by oil industry, Du Pont, Associated Octel and Ethyl. In 1976 became one of the first scientists funded to study effects of lead besides Ethyl’s Kehoe. In 1979 published, with Alan Leviton and Bob Reed, a study showing that children with elevated levels of lead in their teeth score lower on tests of IQ, speech and language and on measures of attention. Later, supplied additional key scientific research to EPA as it prepared to eliminate lead from gasoline. Attacked regularly by lead interests. Hunton and Williams, law firm of Ethyl board members, filed an academic dishonesty complaint with the NIH. The University of Pittsburgh did not support him; he came through a grueling public hearing with his reputation intact. Quote: “If my case illuminates anything, it shows that the federal investigative process can be rather easily exploited by commercial interests to cloud the consensus about a toxicant’s dangers, can slow the regulatory pace, can damage an investigator’s credibility, and can keep him tied up almost to the exclusion of any scientific output for long stretches of time, while defending himself.”

J.L.K.