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Scottish children threatened by lead poisoning

(May 1977)

From Militant, No. 357, 27 May 1977, p. 7.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A survey published in Lancet, the medical journal, has just revealed that up to 2 million homes in Britain put unborn children at risk of mental retardation through lead poisoning.

Doctors at the University of Glasgow’s medical department compared the levels of lead in the blood of 41 babies whose mental retardation could not be attributed to any known cause with that of 36 mentally retarded babies whose cause had been diagnosed. They found that the 41 babies had a very high concentration of lead in their blood. The lead present was attributed to pollution of the drinking water.

A great deal of evidence already exists associating lead with hyperactivity, impaired learning and behavioural changes in both animals and man. Children living near a lead smelter in El Paso were found to have a low IQ, poor eyesight, sluggish movement and difficulty in reasoning. A later survey revealed that 19 out of 20 of the children were educationally sub-normal.

Lead, together with mercury, constitutes one of the most formidable groups of environmental pollutants. Mercury is perhaps best remembered for the large scale poisoning in 1953 of Minemata and later Niigata in Japan. The first sign of the impending disaster that was unleashed on these two communities was when the local cats began to go berserk and throw themselves into the sea. People were then seen walking in a disorientated manner, some had collapsed in the streets suffering from convulsions and all had grotesquely dilated pupils and paralysis of the limbs. By 1956, 78 people in the village of Minemata were seriously ill, some had dreadful physical deformities and 15 children were among those affected. The medical dictionary added a new name – industrial disease or Minemata disease.

The cause was traced to an effluent from the Chisso factory which flowed into Minemata bay. The effluent contained methyl mercuric chloride which accumulated in fish which in turn was eaten by the villagers. The mercury was used as a catalyst in one of the industrial processes. Undeterred by the casualties including that caused by its other factory at Niigata which left 48 dead and 150 seriously injured, the company continued to dump the mercury waste in the sea.

There is an estimated 600 tons lying at the bottom of the bay. When the government officially declared Chisso to be the cause of the disease the company refused liability. Environmentalists then initiated a campaign of buying large numbers of shares so that they could change company policy.

In March 1976, after four major trials the company finally agreed to pay compensation.

The other pollutant, lead, is today threatening to overshadow mercury both in magnitude and with the same destructive intensity.

In July 1974, the Yugoslav vessel, Cavecat, carrying 910 barrels of tetraethyl lead (TEL) – used as an ‘antiknock’ in petrol – was in collision with another ship and sank off the Italian port of Otranto in the Adriatic. Scientists immediately warned the authorities that leakage of TEL would destroy all life in the sea. The Adriatic would become dead; since the lead would enter the delicate ecological life cycle and destroy the minute plankton and plant life which in turn would destroy the fish that feed upon it and ultimately man who eat the fish.

Warnings Ignored

The authorities, as if following a general unwritten law which governs disasters of this sort, predictably chose to ignore these warnings. In fact the Italians and Yugoslav governments together with the shipping company considered the recovery as being “too expensive”. The 910 barrels containing 210 tons of TEL were doomed to remain forever on the bed of the Adriatic sea exposed to the corrosive action of the salt water.

Today, nearly three years after the accident, the Italian government is belatedly making frantic efforts to recover the barrels at an estimated cost of £6½m. Underwater photography has revealed that many barrels were in an advanced state of corrosion. The chief engineer in charge of recovery was pessimistic about the state of the barrels. He feared that some had already burst. Some which were trapped under the hull were unrecoverable.

These two incidents separated in terms of time and geography demonstrate conclusively that capitalism has many common features. If the catastrophes that occurred at Michigan and Seveso are also considered then the enormity of the crime committed becomes even more unpalatable. (In Seveso clouds of very toxic dioxin gas were released. In Michigan polybrominated biphenyl was fed to cattle.)

In all these incidents there was a significant lull in time before adequate safety precautions were taken. This was criminal, especially as in the case of Seveso where the management already had experience in dealing with that type of accident. In all the cases the managing director, together with the public health officers, publicly proclaimed that there was no danger involved. They even went to the extent of producing scientific evidence to show that the people were not suffering from the symptoms that they complained of. Nine months after Seveso the incidence of skin cancer has not abated. All the babies conceived in that period have been aborted.

Four years after Michigan some nine million people have significant amounts of PBB which is known to cause genetic diseases. Thousands are already experiencing deformity in their hands and feet. In Britain today every man, woman and child contains levels of lead and mercury which is well above that of Europe.

It is no coincidence that the report in Lancet involves Scotland. Scottish drinking water contains 27% more lead than the World Health Organisation’s limit. As this report indicates studies are only now being made on the additive effects of lead and mercury on the human body. It is already known for example that lead interferes with all the metabolic processes in the body. This is precisely why this report should not go unnoticed. Science today dominates and permeates every aspect of our existence. It dictates and influences for example the choice of food, clothes, transport and even our life span.

The question of pollution is of immediate concern because capitalism is only motivated by one thing – profits. They are prepared to destroy and disfigure our environment, kill and maim the whole population to achieve this objective, as we have seen.

A planned socialist society which has control of the means of production, distribution and disposal of toxic material will ensure adequate safety precautions of the work force and the population as a whole. For instance, the quantity of lead added to petrol which in turn is emitted to the atmosphere will be drastically reduced and less harmful alternatives sought. We will not be catapulted into situations in which whole populations contract cancerous and genetic diseases, where young children and new born babies are intellectually disadvantaged for the remainder of their lives.

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