Fracking debate: what does the battle for lead-free air teach us?

From The Guardian, 19 Aug 2013:

To fully understand the row about fracking one needs to go back 250 years. In the early 18th century, an epidemic of Devonshire colic afflicted cider drinkers from the West Country. Sir George Baker, future president of the Royal College of Physicians, realised the symptoms were almost identical to lead poisoning.

He discovered that cider presses in Devon were lead-lined and that some manufacturers were adding sugar of lead to their cider. In 1767 he published experiments that proved the presence of lead in Devonshire cider – probably the first ever experiment to solve a public-health problem.

The cider manufacturers were having none of it. They vilified Baker, and hired experts to travel the country decrying his fiendish theories. But Baker was right, Devonshire cider got a bad name and by the 1820s, Devonshire colic was a thing of the past. Parliament never legislated.


In the 20th century the petrochemical industry started adding lead to petrol as an anti-knock agent. By the early 70s, oil companies were adding up to 400,000 tons a year to petrol worldwide.

After the second world war, a young American scientist, Clair Patterson, set about measuring lead in the environment, and quickly discovered that the world was heavily and universally contaminated by lead from petrol. Furthermore, it was making its way into humans.

Patterson found that the lead content of skeletal remains, from a pre-industrial society in South America, was extremely low, and he represented this by one dot. A patient with clinical lead poisoning was represented by 2,000 dots, and the lead burden of a typical adult living in 20th century America or Europe, was represented by 500 dots. For no other poison was there such a narrow gap between what was known to be toxic and what was known to be typical. Furthermore, it meant the entire population of the developed world was being contaminated by a poison that was being deliberately added to petrol by the richest companies in the world.

Unsurprisingly the petrochemical industry was furious and it attempted to have Patterson’s funding discontinued, but it was too late.

Lead is a known neurotoxin, and in 1979, Herb Needleman published a paper in the New England Journal of Medicine. He measured the lead content of shed milk teeth, a far more accurate indication of childhood exposure than measuring blood lead levels. He demonstrated a dose-dependent relationship between increasing lead content and a wide range of psychometric measures, including poor organisational ability, lower IQ, distractibility, and impulsivity.

The lead industry was incandescent. Needleman’s work was subjected to hostile critiques and he was reported for scientific misconduct.

In 2011, the UN announced that it had been successful in phasing out leaded petrol from almost every country in the world, apart from Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia, Burma and Afghanistan. It stated: “Ridding the world of leaded petrol has resulted in $2.4 trillion in annual benefits, 1.2 million fewer premature deaths, higher average intelligence, and 58m fewer crimes.’

So what lessons can we draw from the story of lead? First, that society will enthusiastically adopt new technology without considering the consequences. Second, that you cannot rely on industry to act in the public interest, even when their practices are going to pollute the entire planet. Third, that politicians are no more responsive to issues of public health than they were in the 18th century. Fourth, that remedial action only happens when individuals make their voices heard above the clamour of vested interest. And finally disinformation is a standard industry tactic whenever profits are under threat.

The author was medical and scientific adviser to Clear, the Campaign for Lead-Free Air, from 1981-83 and its chair from 1984-89.

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The pursuit of shale gas is another example of the Coalition’s betrayal of the environment

The Independent, 23 July 2013.

The decision by George Osborne to offer substantial tax breaks to fracking companies has not only infuriated environmentalists. It has caused despair amongst business leaders in the renewable and energy conservation sectors. Whilst fossil fuel companies seem to be the recipients of unending largesse, the government has been decidedly lukewarm towards the green economy and investment has fallen sharply over the past 2 years.

In defense of shale gas, the government claims that it is more fuel-efficient than burning coal, and can therefore be used as a transitional fuel on the way to a low carbon economy. However this argument is highly suspect, firstly because shale gas will last for at least 30 years once the infrastructure is in place, and second because shale gas (methane) is a potent greenhouse gas, twenty times more powerful than CO2 over a 100 year time frame.

Whilst  burning gas releases less CO2 per unit of energy than coal, this benefit is negated by releases of methane during the fracking process. Calculations published by Professor Tom Wigley in the journal  Climatic Change in 2011 show that unless fugitive emissions  of methane are kept below 2 per cent, then shale gas is no better than coal from a global warming perspective. In the US fugitive emissions have been running at around 7 per cent, and the fossil fuel industry has been strenuously resisting methane control legislation proposed by the EPA. This explains why shale gas in the US is cheap, but also means that America’s new energy mix is making climate change worse not better.

Debates about the importance of climate change usually generate more heat than light but there are 4 key facts that put the problem in perspective: First there is no reputable scientific journal that disputes the reality of climate change, nor of man’s contribution to it. Second there is no national scientific academy that diverges from this scientific consensus. Third virtually every government accepts that temperature rises need to be limited to 2 degrees centigrade in order to avoid irreversible climate change. Fourth levels of CO2 in the atmosphere must not exceed 450 parts per million (ppm) in order to stay below the 2 degree barrier.

Currently levels are 400 ppm and are rising by 2-3 ppm per annum: so we cannot afford 30 years of shale gas as a transitional fuel.

Another way of looking at this paradigm is that we can only safely generate another 565 Gigatonnes(Gt) of CO2 and stay within the 2 degree threshold. The Carbon Tracker Initiative calculated that the proven reserves of coal gas and oil globally  amount to 2795 Gt, so unless we come up with an effective method of carbon capture, then 80 per cent of proven reserves need to stay below ground. This means writing off 27 trillion dollars in fossil fuel assets, and this simple calculation encapsulates the entire climate change problem.

Ten countries own 72 per cent of proven fossil fuel reserves worldwide, and these are also the countries that have proven most obstructive whenever the UN tries to impose national limits on emissions of CO2. Thus the US signed the Kyoto Protocol but George Bush refused to ratify it. In 2012 Canada withdrew from the Protocol in order to avoid an 8 billion dollar fine. Russia finally ratified in 2005 but has continued to argue against stricter limits, and Australia did not ratify until 2007. Other major players such as China and India are classified as developing countries and are not therefore bound by the Protocol at all ; nor do they wish to be. In effect CO2 emissions worldwide are largely uncontrolled by any international treaty, and as a result annual emissions of CO2 have increased by over 50 per cent compared with 1990, the baseline year for Kyoto.

In the UK emissions have reportedly fallen by 15 per cent, but this is not due to any effort by the Government on behalf of renewables or energy conservation; merely that the UK has exported most of its manufacturing base abroad to places like China. When this is taken into account, CO2 emissions in the UK have actually increased by 20 per cent since 1990.

It is extraordinary that the Coalition has not paid a higher price politically for its neglect of the environment and the Green economy. On smoking and alcohol pricing, the government’s determination to ignore the scientific data on behalf of big business is going to cost them dear: but exactly the same tactics have been used by lobbyists to steer the Treasury down the shale gas route. We have 5 times more fossil fuels in proven reserves than we can safely use, so why on earth is Shell drilling in the Arctic, why are oil companies seeking to develop unconventional sources such as shale gas,  and tar sands, and why are politicians subsidizing them in these lunatic ventures? One can only wonder at the scientific advice being offered to ministers, or perhaps their inability to understand it.

Planet doomed? Tell us about the poll in Pakistan

The Independent, 13 May 2013:

It is instructive to observe the response of the media in the week that levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached 400 parts per million. It tells us a lot about why this government has been allowed to abandon its environmental policies and why so many of its climate-change advisers are resigning (report, 11 May).

The public looks to the BBC to provide a “balanced” view of climate change, but its record is lamentable. Instead of asking its correspondents to deal with it as a scientific issue, it treats it as a left/right issue and seems to think it has to provide “political balance”.

The Today programme (11 May) mentioned that CO2 had reached 400ppm, but this item was fourth behind the election in Pakistan, a solicitor who had been arrested without justification by the police, and the prevalence of depression among carers; without doubt important issues but why are they considered of greater relevance than the future of the planet?

Could it be, as has been suggested, that editors and journalists, trained in the humanities, just don’t get it?

Dr Robin Russell-Jones MA FRCP FRCPath
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire

Admit it: this could be global warming

The Independent, 21 May 2013:

While one cannot know whether the tornado that hit Oklahoma would have happened without climate change, what we do know is that extreme weather events such as storms and hurricanes will become more frequent and more severe as the oceans warm and the amount of energy in the atmosphere increases. Events that previously happened once in a lifetime will occur every decade, while once-in-a-decade events will occur annually.

Yet the media seems all but oblivious to these phenomena. No one has mentioned climate change in the aftermath of Oklahoma. Hurricane Katrina and Sandy were treated by the US media as acts of God. The modern media resemble medieval soothsayers before microbes were discovered. Infectious diseases were regarded as divine punishments for human transgression; the standard response to outbreaks of the plague was more prayer and fasting.

And like the medieval pundits, do not expect the media to change their perspective soon. It took the Catholic Church 359 years to admit that Galileo was right. I don’t expect Ukip or the swivel-eyed loons in the Tory party to respond any quicker.

Robin Russell-Jones, Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire