Late lessons - China, are you listening?

By Murray Bourne, 08 Nov 2006

There is a series on cable called "Late Lessons from Early Warnings" about environmental disasters that occurred, even though clear warnings existed.

The first in the series was about the use of lead in petrol. Even though it was known since Roman times that lead was poisonous and that it sent people mad, the car industry (especially General Motors) went ahead with using lead as an additive to increase the octane level of petrol. This was in the early 1920s when the number of cars was increasing rapidly. The car industry managed to squash the concerns of the medical advisors and assured everyone that there would be no problem.

Other alternatives were in place (like ethanol) to reduce knocking in engines (that is, when the fuel ignites too early making the engine less efficient), but lead was cheap and GM and the oil companies could see huge profits in this. From William Kovarik, Leaded gasoline: history and current situation (which is no longer available):

GM's Charles Kettering and Thomas Midgley were well aware of the dangers and were repeatedly warned by scientists from Harvard, MIT, Yale and Pottsdam about this "creeping and malicious poison" long before it was put on the market in 1923.

So two generations of people (from the 1920s to the 1980s) in Western countries breathed a known poison, which could have been prevented had the industry opted for ethanol.

It is sad - and scandalous - that leaded fuel is still being sold in Africa, Latin America and parts of Asia. The UN is working to reduce lead in these continents.

Effects of Lead on Learning and Intelligence

In the 1970s, Herbert Needleman conducted a study at Harvard Medical School where he examined the effects of lead intake on children's intelligence. (See Wikipedia - Herbert Needleman.) Even small amounts of lead had negative effects on children's IQ levels. Needleman estimated that 875,000 US citizens have had their learning impaired because of lead poisoning.

China, are you listening?

China's breakneck growth is already having serious environmental consequences. The Chinese (rightly) charge the West of being hypocritical for criticising them for being prolific polluters.

The biggest problem is that China is making a huge fundamental mistake - one of its main pillars for industrial and economic growth is the development of the car industry. The American/Australian dream of a big house on a big block of land built around the notion of individual transport created sprawling suburbs, with all their problems. China, please don't go down the same path.

Footnote 1: I used to teach in Broken Hill, a silver, lead and zinc mining town in outback Australia. There was always a worry about the lead that I was exposed to. A 1991 study (no longer available) showed that 25% of Broken Hill children have unacceptably high lead content in their blood.

Footnote 2: I cannot help feeling a sense of glee that the US car industry is falling on hard times and is being overtaken by the Japanese and Korean carmakers whose vehicles are more fuel-efficient. (See my experiences driving the Toyota Prius.)

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