The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution

The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution

"... The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution": Taking Action in a Landmark Case Against the Lead-Paint Industry

Monday, March 06, 2006

Lead History: The Beginnings

Blog 3/7/06

The readings for this week’s class sparked my interest because my current research has brought up the issue of mining. I am slowly realizing how what is inside of the earth affects our lives. In essence, mankind is like Park in Encounters With the Archdruid, smashing into the earth to see what pops out. Lead is one of the oldest metals known to man; the ancient Egyptians were aware of it and we have been figuring out different ways to use it ever since. Lead was also one of the first metals mined in America.
The United States produced and used more refined lead than any other country by the twentieth century. The National Academy of Science reported that by 1980, the United States consumed 1.3 tons of lead per year. (

I have been looking into information on the beginnings of lead poisoning awareness in the United States and it is amazing how much was known about lead and its dangerous properties. Plumbism, or lead poisoning, has been recorded since the first century. Some even suggest that the fall of the Roman Empire can be partially attributed to lead in their food and wine. The EPA website states, ”The result, according to many modern scholars, was the death by slow poisoning of the greatest empire the world has ever known.” But lead is a mineral in the earth, and its very presence encouraged humankind to continue to mine and figure out ways to use lead.

Manufacturing of lead paint in the United States began in the early 1800s by John Harrison of Philadelphia. Lead has been also been used as an additive to gasoline; tetraethyl lead was developed by General Motors engineers in the 1920s. Around the time that Europe was banning lead based paint, GM Corporation was pumping it into our fuel. As soon as this compound began to be used people started getting sick. One of the engineers that developed and tested the fuel became sick, as well as workers in refineries in New Jersey and Ohio. Effects were well known; journalists in a number of articles refer to it as “loony gas.” For a short time, the production and use of leaded gasoline was banned, but the industry pushed the deciding panel to a decision before proper research could be done on the compound, so they 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.” A government standard was set, but it turned out to be equal to the amount of lead being manufactured. In other words, there was no standard. The industry did, on its own, take initiative and tried to make the refineries safer for the workers, but similar to lead paint, lead in gasoline was not stopped until much later on. (

It is incredible how much industries have covered up and denied well-known information, as well as influencing government regulations for the sake of profit. How can a person wake up everyday with the knowledge that their career involves hurting others? It is sickening. It is ridiculous that individuals could argue that they never knew their product was dangerous. I found articles dating from 1838 discussing children getting sick from paint. An article from 1852 entitled “Lead v. Zinc” stated that zinc paint should be used because lead paint “yellows” and “the unhealthiness of lead is to (sic) well known to need comment.” The article goes on to mention the thousands of workers that had been treated for poisoning in Europe. A similar article published in 1860 by the Medical and Surgical Reporter discussed the “deleterious influence of lead paint on those whose occupations are in making or applying it…” The pre-1900 articles printed about lead contain a steady stream of pseudo-scientific debates over whether or not it was the lead in the paint, its fumes, turpentine, or something else that made the paint poisonous, if it was poisonous at all. Yet, these debates are surrounded with articles about animals, children, and workers getting poisoned from lead paint. One would think that the government would regulate its use or manufacturing until the source of the problem was discovered, especially since people were dying. It is obvious that the poisonous properties of lead paint were known. Regardless of whether or not it was the lead in the paint or some reaction arising from lead and another chemical, its poisonous nature was well known. It should have been stopped so much sooner. The lead industry pumped lead into paint because it was sucking it up from the earth. The question is what makes someone step up and take responsibility for it. When are people forced to be responsible and how? Is it only laws and policies that can step in to regulate these practices over the course of history? Hopefully our project will uncover individuals who want to make a difference for reasons other than profit or legal necessity, other people like Rosner who are not afraid to step up.
(For more in-depth/ really interesting information about lead in ancient times, see


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