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Ronnie Sookhdeo

Lead – The most widespread poison

(May 1983)

From Militant, No. 649, 6 May 1983, p. 7.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE recent Royal Commission report about the damaging effects of lead heralds a major advance in the struggle to eliminate one of the most toxic substances from our environment.

The definitive report, the product of a year-long study, makes twenty-nine recommendations for the immediate removal of lead from petrol and the phased reduction of lead from paints, water, food and drink:

“The average blood lead concentration in the population is about a quarter of that at which symptoms of frank chronic lead poisoning may occasionally occur. We find this disturbing! We do not know of any other toxic substance which is so widely distributed in human and animal populations and present at concentrations greater than one fifth at which frank symptoms may occur.”

Apart from condemning lead the report also dismisses as being of dubious value, the concept of threshold levels; - these are widely used by industry as a measure of how much toxic substance someone can be exposed to, without harmful effects. The report also calls for the replacement of all lead plumbing and suggests mass publicity of hazards associated with paint stripping!

Predictably, many industries, more noticeably the motor manufacturers, have attempted to discredit the major findings. Some have retaliated by questioning the evidence of harmful effects and also asserting that the costs of lead removal from petrol would be prohibitively high. The motor industry has even claimed that an investment of £2,000 million would be required for new machinery.

What is the present situation regarding lead in petrol? In Britain, over 50,000 tons of lead are discharged into the atmosphere each year – 10,000 tons in London alone! The effects of the colossal damage of urban lead poisoning are well documented but those who profit from its continued use in petrol are loathe to meet its replacement.

Don’t rely on government ‘good intentions’

In 1980, after a series of legal battles, public concern and trade union pressure forced the government to mount an enquiry. They subsequently agreed to implement a new limit of 0.15g of lead per litre by the end of 1985, compared with the old limit of 0.4 grammes.

The Tory government at that time claimed: “Time was needed for industry to make adjustments to machinery and to keep in line with Europe.” Not surprisingly industry did not feel threatened by those proposals!

Now government grudgingly says it “accepts” the findings of the latest Royal Commission report. But it is vital that the labour movement does not rely on Tory ‘promises of intent’, and bases its approach on a clear analysis of the dangers lead poses, the alternatives, and the vested interests arguing against change.

Firstly what are the dangers? A great deal of evidence exists associating lead with hyper-activity, impaired learning and behavioural changes in both animals and man. An early study of children living near a lead smelter in El Paso found that many had low IQs, poor eye sight, sluggish behaviour and difficulty in reasoning.

A later survey of the same children found that a staggering 19 out of 20 were educationally sub normal. More recent studies of the shed milk teeth of urban children in Britain and the US have conclusively established the link with lead in the air.

These finding have startling implications. Recent random analysis of the teeth of children in Birmingham have shown a very high lead content. It has been estimated that as many as 95% of the two million children in Birmingham are affected!

Russia has outlawed lead in petrol since 1959, and Japan, USA, W. Germany and Sweden have either followed suit or begun to move in that direction.

Why is lead added to petrol? It was discovered that tetra ethyl lead (TEL) could be used for increasing the octane rating of petrol to make it more suitable for use with high-compression car engines and also prevent ‘knocking’. The higher the octane rating, the easier the combustion and less the ‘knocking’.

It is also convenient and cheaper to the oil companies because it can be used to adjust the octane rating to produce various grades of petrol which requires less refining.

Over the years several non-toxic substitutes for lead were found – the most satisfactory being methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). MTBE has been described as the perfect alternative to lead. It is cheap to manufacture, non poisonous, causes no engine damage and promotes more complete combustion of fuel and importantly, does not produce any harmful products.

But within months of its manufacture, the oil companies and car companies launched a virulent campaign, firstly to persuade the government against its use, and secondly to disseminate misleading information to the population as a whole. The oil companies have also asserted that to produce lead-free petrol would require maximum investment in new refinery techniques which would increase the consumption of oil and the price of petrol.

These claims are absolute nonsense. The oil companies have made colossal profits as a result of the first wave of oil price rises. Yet a fraction of these profits could produce petrol free of lead.

Moreover, because of the recession all their refining plants have been running at below 50% capacity. A recent conference of scientists has suggested that only slight modification of existing equipment could produce the required higher octane petrol, free of lead.

Where the health of workers and their families are concerned, there is no safe lead level at all. The labour and trade union movement must take up the issue and fight against lead additives in petrol.

Labour must demand:

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Last updated: 6 February 2017