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Lead Poisoning: A Historical Perspective

by Jack Lewis
[EPA Journal - May 1985]

Hence gout and stone afflict the human race;
Hence lazy jaundice with her saffron face;
Palsy, with shaking head and tott'ring knees.
And bloated dropsy, the staunch sot's disease;
Consumption, pale, with keen but hollow eye,
And sharpened feature, shew'd that death was nigh.
The feeble offspring curse their crazy sires,
And, tainted from his birth, the youth expires.

(Description of lead poisoning by an anonymous Roman hermit, translated by Humelbergius Secundus, 1829)

The decades-old controversy over the use of lead as a fuel additive is a mere footnote to centuries of controversy over this remarkably useful but also insidiously deadly metal.

The ancients regarded lead as the father of all metals, but the deity they associated with the substance was Saturn, the ghoulish titan who devoured his own young. The very word "saturnine," in its most specific meaning, applies to an individual whose temperament has become uniformly gloomy, cynical, and taciturn as the results of lead intoxication.

In the rigidly hierarchical world of the ancients, lead was the plebeian metal deemed suitable for a vast variety of everyday uses. Lead products were, to a certain degree, accessible even to the poorest proletarian. But only the chosen few were at the top of the social totem pole were able to regularly indulge their insatiable craving for lead-containing products.

Lead was a key component in face powders, rouges, and mascaras; the pigment in many paints ("crazy as a painter" was an ancient catch phrase rooted in the demented behavior of lead-poisoned painters); a nifty spermicide for informal birth control; the ideal "cold" metal for use in the manufacture of chastity belts; a sweet and sour condiment popular for seasoning and adulterating food; a wine preservative perfect for stopping fermentation or disguising inferior vintages; the malleable and inexpensive ingredient in pewter cups, plates, pitchers, pots and pans, and other household artifacts; the basic component of lead coins; and a partial ingredient in debased bronze or brass coins as well as counterfeit silver and gold coins.

Most important of all was lead's suitability as inexpensive and reliable piping for the vast network plumbing that kept Rome and the provincial cities of the Roman Empire supplied with water. Indeed, the very word "plumbing" comes from the Latin word for lead, plumbum. The lead pipes that were the vital arteries of ancient Rome were forged by smithies whose patron saint, Vulcan, exhibited several of the symptoms of advanced lead poisoning: lameness, pallor, and wizened expression.

Addicted to Lead

The Romans were aware that lead could cause serious health problems, even madness and death. However, they were so fond of its diverse uses that they minimized the hazards it posed. Romans of yesteryear, like Americans of today, equated limited exposure to lead with limited risk. What they did not realize was that their everyday low-level exposure to the metal rendered them vulnerable to chronic lead poisoning, even while it spared them the full horrors of acute lead poisoning.

The symptoms of acute lead intoxication appeared most vividly among miners who were thrown into unhealthy intimacy with the metal on a daily basis. Romans reserved such debilitating and backbreaking labor for slaves. Some of these unfortunates were forced to spend all of their brief and blighted lives underground, out of sight and out of mind. The unpleasantness of lead mining was further neutralized late in the Empire when the practice was prohibited in Italy and consigned completely to the provinces.

Lead smelting, which had once been commonplace in every Roman city and town, eventually followed mining operations to the provinces. Italy, the heart of imperial Rome, grew tired of the noxious fumes emanating from lead smelting forges. The obvious damage to the health of smithies and their families was a matter of little or no concern.

Roman aristocrats, who regarded labor of any sort as beneath their dignity, lived oblivious to the human wreckage on which their ruinous diet of lead depended. They would never dream of drinking wine except from a golden cup, but they thought nothing of washing down platters of lead-seasoned food with gallons of lead-adulterated wine.

The result, according to many modern scholars, was the death by slow poisoning of the greatest empire the world has ever known. Symptoms of "plumbism" or lead poisoning were already apparent as early as the first century B.C. Julius Caesar for all his sexual ramblings was unable to beget more than one known offspring. Caesar Augustus, his successor, displayed not only total sterility but also a cold indifference to sex.

The first century A.D. was a time of unbridled gluttony and drunkenness among the ruling oligarchs of Rome. The lead concealed in the food and wine they devoured undoubtedly had a great deal to do with the outbreak of unprecedented epidemics of saturnine gout and sterility among aristocratic males and the alarming rate of infertility and stillbirths among aristocratic women.

Still more alarming was the conspicuous pattern of mental incompetence that came to be synonymous with the Roman elite. This creeping cretinism manifested itself most frighteningly in such clearly degenerate emperors as Caligula, Nero, and Commodus. It is said that Nero wore a breastplate of lead, ostensibly to strengthen his voice, as he fiddled and sang while Rome burned. Domitian, the last of the Flavian emperors, actually had a fountain installed in his palace from which he could drink a never-ending stream of leaded wine.

Medieval and Renaissance Lead

During the Middle Ages, lead was widely used by alchemists as a key component in procedures thought to be capable of generating gold from baser metals. Lead served an even more lofty function when leaded type launched Gutenberg's galaxy late in the fifteenth century. Mass printing was crucial to the eradication of ignorance that led to the upheavals of the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

Kinkier and more destructive uses of lead never lagged far behind. The advantages of the metal as an invisible and slow-acting poison were not lost on the Lucrezia Borgias and Catherine de Medicis of Renaissance Europe. Lead was known to be extremely convenient for eliminating inconvenient relatives. In fact, the world-weary French jokingly referred to the metal as poudre de la succession -- or succession powder. Another sinister latter-day use of lead was, of course, in the mass production of pistols, rifles, and cannons and the ammunition designed to blaze a bloody trail from their barrels.

Lead mining and smelting began in the New World almost as soon as the first colonists were settled. By 1621 the metal was being mined and forged in Virginia. The low melting temperature of lead made it highly malleable, even at the most primitive forges. Furthermore, lead's resistance to corrosion greatly enhanced its strength and durability. Technological progress in the American colonies and the American republic was to owe a great deal to this useful and abundant metal.

By the twentieth century, the U.S. had emerged as the world's leading producer and consumer of refined lead. According to the National Academy of Science's report on Lead in the Human Environment, the United States was by 1980 consuming about 1.3 million tons of lead per year. This quantity, which represents roughly 40 percent of the world's supply, translates into a usage rate of 5,221 grams of lead per American per annum: a rate of dependence on lead and lead-containing products nearly ten times greater than that of the ancient Romans! According to Jerome O. Nriagu, the world's leading authority on lead poisoning in antiquity, the comparable Roman rate of lead usage was approximately 550 grams per person per year.

Not the least significant of those U.S. lead uses, although the one subject to the sharpest decline in the past decade, has been in the automotive industry. Since 1923 -- with a brief interruption in 1925 -- the U.S. has made extensive use of tetraethyl lead as an anti-knock, octane-boosting gasoline additive.

Running on Lead

Considerable ballyhoo surrounded the introduction of tetraethyl lead in the early 1920s. Iodine, aniline, selenium, and other substances had all fallen by the wayside in the frantic search for a fuel additive that would improve engine performance and reduce engine knock.

Then in December 1921, three General Motors engineers -- Charles Kettering, Thomas Midgeley, and Thomas Boyd -- reported tremendous success with their first test of tetraethyl lead. Through the Ethyl corporation, then a GM subsidiary, GM quickly began touting this lead compound as the virtual savior of the American automobile industry.

The discovery was indeed extremely important. It paved the way for the development of the high-power, high-compression internal combustion engines that were to win World War II and dominate the U.S. automotive industry until the early 1970s.

Unfortunately, the use of tetraethyl lead created almost as many problems as it solved. The first danger sign was the mysterious illness that forced Thomas Midgeley to spend weeks convalescing in the winter of 1923. Midgeley had been experimenting rather recklessly with the various methods of manufacturing tetraethyl lead, and he did not at first realize just how dangerous the substance was in its concentrated liquid state.

The deadliness of tetraethyl lead was sadly confirmed in the summer of 1924. Workers engaged in producing the additive fell sick and died at several refineries in New Jersey and Ohio. Banner headlines greeted each new fatality until a total of 15 workers had lost their lives -- and their minds.

Terrifying rumors circulated about the madness that had put some of the doomed into straitjackets before it put them six feet under. It was not long before journalists were calling leaded fuel "loony gas." Ironically, the gas in question was routinely dyed "a wine color" that made it reminiscent in more ways than one of something served at a Roman orgy.

In May 1925, the Surgeon General temporarily suspended the production and sale of leaded gasoline. He appointed a panel of experts to investigate the recent fatalities that had "occurred in the manufacture and mixing of the concentrated tetraethyl lead." The panel was also asked to weigh "the possible danger" that might arise "from...wide distribution of a lead compound" through its sale as a gasoline additive.

Industry dominated the Surgeon General's investigatory committee, which included only one genuine environmental visionary, Dr. Alice Hamilton of Harvard University. The Coolidge Administration gave the panel just seven months to design, run, and analyze its tests.

The committee's final report, published in June 1926, complained of the time constraints under which it had been forced to operate. Seven months was "not sufficient," argued the panel, "to produce detectable symptoms of lead poisoning" in experimental subjects because of the very slow gestation of that toxicological syndrome.

Nevertheless, the Surgeon General's panel ruled that there were "no good grounds for prohibiting the use of ethyl gasoline...as a motor fuel, provided that its distribution and use are controlled by proper regulations." The coming decades of Depression, total war, and post-war boom were hardly conducive to the implementation of "proper regulations" for leaded gasoline. Indeed, no compulsory standards were set for the industry until the early 1970s when EPA began its long, hard struggle to phase down lead levels in U.S. gasoline.

One saturnine prophecy marred the otherwise sanguine 1926 report to the Surgeon General. By 1985 these words were to reverberate with particular resonance down the corridors of time:

"It remains possible that, if the use of leaded gasolines becomes widespread, conditions may arise very different from those studied by us which would render its use more of a hazard than would appear to be the case from this investigation. Longer experience may show that even such slight storage of lead as was observed [among human guinea pigs] in these [1925] studies may lead eventually to recognizable lead poisoning or to chronic degenerative diseases of a less obvious character. In view of such possibilities the committee feels that the investigation begun under their direction must not be allowed to lapse.... With the experience obtained and the exact methods now available, it should be possible to follow closely the outcome of a more extended use of this fuel and to determine whether or not it may constitute a menace to the health of the general public after prolonged use or under conditions not now foreseen.... The vast increase in the number of automobiles throughout the country makes the study of all such questions a matter of real importance from the standpoint of public health."

Needless to say, this advice fell on deaf ears during the gin-soaked, jazz-crazed Roaring Twenties.

Voluntary Standard

In 1927 the Surgeon General set a voluntary standard for the oil industry to follow in mixing tetraethyl lead with gasoline. This standard -- 3 cubic centimeters per gallon (cc/g) -- corresponded to the maximum then in use among refiners, and thus imposed no real restraint. Even without prodding, however, the industry did take giant strides toward instituting safer working conditions in oil refineries, thereby protecting individual laborers in the microcosm of the workplace.

Three decades later, the Surgeon General actually raised the lead standard to 4 cc/g (equivalent of 4.23 grams per gallon). This voluntary standard once again represented the outside range of industry practice. Nevertheless, the Surgeon General concluded in 1958 that a loosening of the voluntary standard posed no threat to the health of the average American: "During the past 11 years, during which the greatest expansion of tetraethyl lead has occurred, there has been no sign that the average individual in the U.S. has sustained any measurable increase in the concentration of lead in his blood or in the daily output of lead in his urine."

The actual industry average during the 1950s and the 1960s hovered in the vicinity of 2.4 grams per total gallon. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), which was home to the Surgeon General starting with the Kennedy Administration, had authority over lead emissions under the Clean Air Act of 1963. The criteria mandated by this statute were still in the draft stage when the Act was reauthorized in 1970 and a new agency called EPA came into existence.

By then, the adverse effects of America's decades-old addiction to fossil fuel in general and leaded fuel in particular were becoming obvious to all. In January 1971, EPA's first Administrator, William D. Ruckelshaus, declared that "an extensive body of information exists which indicates that the addition of alkyl lead to gasoline...results in lead particles that pose a threat to public health."

It should be emphasized, however, that scientific evidence capable of documenting this conclusion did not exist in previous decades. Only very recently have scientists been able to prove that low-level lead exposure resulting from automobile emissions is harmful to human health in general, but especially to the health of children and pregnant women.

EPA took an emphatic stand on the issue in its final health document on the subject, "EPA's Position on the Health Implications of Airborne Lead," which was released on November 28, 1973. This study confirmed what preliminary studies had already suggested: namely, that lead from automobile exhaust was posing a direct threat to public health. Under the Clean Air Amendments of 1970, that conclusion left EPA with no option but to control the use of lead as a fuel additive known to "endanger the public health or welfare."

The very next month, in December 1973, EPA issued regulations calling for a gradual reduction in the lead content of the total gasoline pool, which includes all grades of gasoline. The restrictions were scheduled to be implemented starting on January 1, 1975, and to extend over a five-year period. The average lead content of the total gasoline pool of each refinery was to be reduced from the level of approximately 2.0 grams per total gallon that prevailed in 1973 to a maximum of 0.5 grams per total gallon after January 1, 1979. Litigation was to postpone implementation of this phasedown for two years.

Dawn of the Catalytic Converter

Starting with the 1975 model year, U.S. automakers responded to EPA's lead phasedown timetable by equipping new cars with pollution-reducing catalytic converters designed to run only on unleaded fuel. Fittingly, a key component of these catalysts that were to be the undoing of lead was that noblest of noble metals, platinum.

Although over 40 percent of all pump sales are still leaded as of today, the market share of leaded vehicle is steadily diminishing. And with it, so is the noxious cloud of lead-polluted air we have grown accustomed to breathing. EPA estimates that ambient lead levels dropped 64 percent between 1975 and 1982.

In 1982, with the introduction of unleaded gasoline well underway, EPA developed a new standard intended to apply strictly to leaded gasoline. In October of that year the agency promulgated a standard of 1.1 grams per leaded gasoline (gplg). This was roughly equivalent to the standard of 0.5 per total gallon that had become effective in 1980. But by focusing on leaded gallons only, EPA's new standard narrowed the range of lead content deviation and set the stage for significant reductions still to come. At this writing, 1.1 gplg is still the EPA standard, but it will expire on July 1 of this year when a lower standard takes effect.

As part of the EPA's latest lead phasedown initiative, the 1.1 gplg standard will drop on July to 0.5 gplg. Then on January 1, 1986, the standard will go down even further to 0.1 gplg. This will represent a 90 percent decrease from the agency's current standard for leaded fuel. Overall, the 1986 standard will represent a drop of more than 98 percent in the lead content of U.S. gasoline from the time of EPA's founding in 1970 to 1986. This already impressive achievement may go one step further if EPA institutes a total ban on lead; the agency is now considering a total lead phaseout, which could begin as soon as 1988.

On the basis of all that is known about the history of lead and its adverse effects on human health, it is impossible not to welcome EPA's latest lead phasedown initiative as well as the agency's decision to consider banning lead altogether from U.S. gasoline.

Lewis was Assistant Editor of EPA Journal.