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.