Rachel #540: History of Precaution, Part 2
This seems instructive and frightening re: regulation of GE.
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. RACHEL'S ENVIRONMENT & HEALTH WEEKLY #540 .
. ---April 3, 1997--- .
. HEADLINES: .
. HISTORY OF PRECAUTION, PART 2 .
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HISTORY OF PRECAUTION, PART 2
As we saw last week, the U.S. Public Health Service held a
one-day conference on May 20, 1925, to determine whether public
health would be harmed if oil and automotive corporations added
the toxic metal, lead, to gasoline. (See REHW #539.) By 1925,
lead had been a documented hazard in America for at least 100
years, but the corporations had discovered that leaded gasoline
allowed them to create more powerful engines, so they started
adding lead to gasoline in 1923. In the manufacture of the lead
product (called tetraethyl lead by chemists, and "ethyl" by the
corporations) hundreds of workers were poisoned and this created
headlines. The corporations temporarily suspended sale of leaded
gasoline and the U.S. Public Health Service convened a conference
to determine whether (a) leaded gasoline could be safely
manufactured; and (b) whether lead from automobile exhausts would
harm the general public.
The morning session on May 20 was devoted to speeches by General
Motors, Standard Oil of New Jersey, DuPont, and their new joint
venture, Ethyl Corporation, which they had created to market
leaded gasoline. The afternoon was devoted to discussions of
Late in the afternoon, Dr. Yandell Henderson of Yale University
summarized what he had heard, as follows: "We have in this room,
I find, two diametrically opposed conceptions. The men engaged
in industry, chemists, and engineers, take it as a matter of
course that a little thing like industrial poisoning should not
be allowed to stand in the way of a great industrial advance. On
the other hand, the sanitary experts take it as a matter of
course that the first consideration is the health of the
Various speakers established that: lead would be emitted from
automobile exhausts as a fine dust; lead is a potent
brain-damaging poison and dust is its most dangerous form; when
caged laboratory animals were dosed with automobile exhaust, lead
dust built up on the bottoms of their cages; lead is a cumulative
poison; it passes through the placenta and harms the unborn; it
causes low birth weight, spontaneous abortion and stillbirth.
(See REHW #539.) On these points, there was no disagreement.
However, views were split that day in 1925: the corporations
wanted to press ahead rapidly, putting about 2 grams (1/14th of
an ounce) of lead into every gallon of gasoline. Health
officials, on the other hand, urged caution; they wanted to
consider the consequences for public health. Without giving it a
name, health officials in 1925 were embracing the principle of
precautionary action, which says, first, that the burden of proof
of safety should be borne by the proponent of a new technology,
not by the public; and second, that, where there are threats of
serious or irreversible damage, lack of scientific certainty
should not be used as an excuse for postponing measures to
prevent environmental degradation.
For example, Yandell Henderson ended his afternoon talk by
describing a recent paper by Dr. Harriet Hardy (Harvard
professor, and one of the nation's acknowledged experts on lead)
in the most recent JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION:
"In that article, Doctor Hamilton expresses the matter as fully
and as clearly as anyone possibly can. In the last sentence of
her paper she sets up this very simple proposition that this
substance, this new industrial hazard, should not be put into
general use, or its use should not be extended until we have
adequate and full information assuring us that we are not
introducing another health hazard into our daily lives."[1,pg.66]
A clear statement of the precautionary principle.
Professor Joseph C. Aub of Harvard calculated that if all the
gasoline to be sold in 1926 were leaded, then 50,000 tons of lead
would be spewed as a fine dust across America's highways, roads
and urban streets. "I am not certain that this would cause
poisoning," said Professor Aub, "but whether it would cause
poisoning is a very serious question.... It seems to me that
this should be very thoroughly investigated before tetraethyl
lead is again put on the market."[1,pgs.72-73] Another clear
statement of the precautionary principle.
The American Federation of Labor (AFL) had two representatives at
the conference, both of whom embraced the precautionary principle:
Grace M. Burnham, representing the Workers' Health Bureau of the
AFL, said, "...I think that the United States should be
self-respecting enough to realize that, when there is a public
health hazard involved which affects the entire population, that
hazard ought to be investigated out of public funds and by a
responsible public agency. ...And I believe that until that time,
and until the manufacture, distribution, and use of tetraethyl
lead has been proved conclusively to be safe, its use should be
Mr. A.L. Berres, representing the Metal Trades Department of the
AFL, said, "I feel that, as has been stated here by some of the
previous speakers, until such time as it can be definitely
determined that there is no hazard in the manufacture and
handling of this gas [leaded gasoline], its use ought to be
Dr. Haven Emerson, professor of public health at Columbia
University in New York City summarized, "I presume that it is the
inclination of every health officer to urge a continuance of the
cessation of the use or sale of the ethyl gasoline which has been
voluntarily determined upon by the company."[1,pg.84]
In sum, in 1925, the public health community, as represented at
the May 20th conference, urged the principle of precautionary
action: faced with a known hazard of unknown size, they urged
that the hazard by prevented.
The corporations, on the other hand, used arguments that are
still common today:
** The dangers have not been proven;
** Animal studies cannot tell us what we need to know about
** Efficiency requires us to adopt new technologies even though
some people may have to be sacrificed;
** People should act strictly upon available facts, not upon
fears for the future or opinions about what MIGHT occur.
Sometimes these arguments were combined. For example, Frank A.
Howard representing the Ethyl Corporation, said "Our continued
development of motor fuels is essential in our civilization....
Now, as a result of some 10 years' research on the part of the
General Motors Corporation and 5 years' research by the Standard
Oil Co., or a little bit more, we have this apparent gift of
God--...of tetraethyl lead...
"...Because some animals die and some do not die in some
experiments, shall we give this thing up entirely?... I think it
would be an unheard-of blunder if we should abandon a thing of
this kind merely because of our fears.... Possibilities can not
be allowed to influence us to such an extent as that in this
matter. It must be not fears but facts that we must be guided by.
I do not think we are justified in trying to reach a final
conclusion in this matter on fears at all; nor are we justified
in saying that we will cease this development because of fears we
entertain. This development must be stopped, if it is stopped at
all, by proofs of the facts."[1,pg.106]
Dr. Robert Kehoe, a medical consultant to the Ethyl Corporation,
gave a similar argument: "I must say, from the standpoint of
industry, that when a material is found to be of this importance
for the conservation of fuel and for increasing the efficiency of
the automobile it is not a thing which may be thrown into the
discard on the basis of opinions. It is a thing which should be
treated solely on the basis of facts."[1,pg.70]
Since the "facts" could not include any poisonings until such
poisonings had already occurred (until they occurred, they would
be nothing more than speculative "fears" or "opinions"), the
argument for basing policy strictly on "facts" produced a policy
of experimenting on the public and waiting for the sick and the
dead to accumulate. This, then, became the official way of doing
business in the U.S. Today the language is slightly different;
we hear calls for policy based on "sound science" (not on
"facts") but it is the same argument.
Shortly after the May conference, Dr. Emery Hayhurst --a paid
consultant to the Ethyl Corporation --wrote an unsigned editorial
for the AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH titled "Ethyl
Gasoline." (He was a member of the JOURNAL's editorial
board.) In it, he described newspaper advertisements by the
Ethyl Corporation which claimed that leaded gasoline was being
used around the country with "complete safety and satisfaction."
Hayhurst's editorial concluded, "Observational evidence and
reports to various health officials over the country, previous to
and following the above advertisements have, so far as we have
been able to find out, corroborated the statement of 'complete
safety' so far as the public health has been concerned."
The May, 1925, conference ended with a unanimous resolution
calling upon the U.S. Surgeon General to appoint a seven-member
blue-ribbon panel to render an opinion on the dangers of lead by
January 1, 1926. For about six months, the committee studied 252
garage mechanics, filling station attendants and chauffeurs in
Dayton and Cincinnati and concluded, "There are at present no
good grounds for prohibiting the use of ethyl gasoline." In sum,
the "facts" argument overwhelmed the precautionary principle.
In June, 1926, GM, DuPont, Standard Oil of New Jersey and their
joint venture, the Ethyl Corporation, started selling leaded
gasoline again, and they continued to do so until Congress
finally outlawed it completely in 1989.5 They still sell their
brain-damaging product in third-world nations today. Between
1926 and 1985, 7 million metric tons of toxic lead dust (15.4
billion pounds) were distributed into the environment by the
In 1965, MIT professor Clair C. Patterson examined the situation
and concluded that "the average resident of the United States is
being subjected to severe chronic lead insult." Patterson
went on, "Intellectual irritability and disfunction are
associated with classical lead poisoning, and it is possible, and
in my opinion probable, that similar impairments on a lesser but
still significant scale might occur in persons subjected to
severe chronic lead insult." Subsequent studies have confirmed
and reconfirmed this view.
The period of greatest lead use was 1945-1971, after which it
began to decline. In those years, 165,000 to 275,000 TONS of
lead dust spewed from the exhaust pipes of American automobiles
EACH YEAR. Americans born during these years have 300 to 1000
times as much lead in their bodies as pre-Columbian indigenous
people had. Thus the generation of decision-makers in power
today --in government and in corporations --is made up of people
who are suffering mental irritability and disfunction as a result
of severe chronic lead insult. Reviewing the history of the past
25 years, it seems clear that the nation and the world have
already paid a terrible price for their irritability and
disfunction. Leadership by the most lead-damaged (those born
around 1970) lies just ahead.
(National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)
 Treasury Department, United States Public Health Service,
PROCEEDINGS OF A CONFERENCE TO DETERMINE WHETHER OR NOT THERE IS
A PUBLIC HEALTH QUESTION IN THE MANUFACTURE, DISTRIBUTION OR USE
OF TETRAETHYL LEAD GASOLINE [PUBLIC HEALTH BULLETIN NO. 158]
(Washington, D.C.: Treasury Department, United States Public
Health Service, 1925). Available from William Davis at the
National Archives in Washington, D.C.: (202) 501-5350. [National
Archives Record Group No. 287; T27.12:158/3S1 [possibly 351?]
24/2316 Box T777. RG 287.]
 See David Freestone and Ellen Hey, "Origins and Development
of the Precautionary Principle," in David Freestone and Ellen
Hey, editors, THE PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE AND INTERNATIONAL LAW
(The Hague, London, and Boston: Kluwer Law International, 1996),
 David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, "A 'Gift of God'?: The
Public Health Controversy over Leaded Gasoline during the 1920s,"
AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH Vol. 75, No. 4 (April 1985),
 "Ethyl Gasoline," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH Vol. 15
(1925), pgs. 239-240. Rosner and Markowitz, cited above, pg. 347
identify Hayhurst as the author of the anonymous editorial, based
on his correspondence with R.R. Sayers of the U.S. Bureau of
 Jerome O. Nriagu, "The Rise and Fall of Leaded Gasoline," THE
SCIENCE OF THE TOTAL ENVIRONMENT Vol. 92 (1990), pgs. 13-28.
 Clair C. Patterson, "Contaminated and Natural Lead
Environments of Man," ARCHIVES OF ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH Vol. 11
(September 1965), pgs. 344-360.
 Bruce A. Fowler and others, MEASURING LEAD EXPOSURE IN
INFANTS, CHILDREN, AND OTHER SENSITIVE POPULATIONS (Washington,
D.C.: National Academy Press, 1993), pgs. 14-15, 107.
Descriptor terms: lead; precautionary principle; general motors;
dupont; ethyl corporation; standard oil of new jersey; endocrine
disruptors; hormone disruptors; hormones; tetraethyl lead;
gasoline; public health; epa; robert kehoe; joseph aub;
automobiles; oil industry; alice hamilton; e.r. hayhurst; r.r.
sayers; bureau of mines; u.s. public health service; yandell
henderson; harriet hardy; american federation of labor; afl;
grace burnham; a.l. berres; haven emerson;
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