This raises a question: how do we keep score? It's easy to oversimplify. Some people will approve of the program because they like the idea of clean air. But legislation rarely does exactly what it says on the tin. We should at least ask if the air got cleaner after the Act. Indeed, it did; air quality in the United States is much improved since 1970, when President Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency to expand federal regulation of pollution. But how much credit do we give EPA for the improvement?
Congress requires the EPA to give itself an occasional report card, so we could ask them if they think they are doing a good job. This is a dubious approach. The EPA has the same incentives as any other organization, public or private, to convince the people who provide its income that they should continue writing checks. I reviewed their 1997 report and found analysis that appeared very motivated to get a good score.
On the cost side, EPA recognized that “a significant uncertainty arises in the cost analysis as a consequence of constructing a hypothetical scenario” yet came up with an estimate of 523 billion (1990) dollars in compliance costs over the 1973-1990 period. This is the half-trillion in costs cited by a book excerpted in The Atlantic.
But the next page of the EPA report estimates “Indirect Effects of the CAA,” the second-order effects, such as “higher consumer prices, which resulted in reductions in the quantity of consumer purchases of goods and services produced by those sectors. This reduction in consumer demand under the control scenario led, ultimately, to reductions in output and employment in those sectors.”
These secondary effects are hard to measure, and tricky to report fairly over time, but are similar in magnitude to the direct compliance costs, resulting in total costs over the period of a trillion dollars.
A billion here, a billion there.
But the EPA report describes that trillion in costs as a great bargain, returning many times as much value in benefits. An interesting accounting technique is the foundation of this rosy tally. The EPA uses a model that gives itself credit for 100% of the air quality improvement it found in the period 1970 to 1990, despite recognizing that state and local pollution controls and voluntary actions contributed to the improvement.
One might be inclined to doubt how much progress we could reasonably expect from actions “voluntarily initiated by private entities.” But the greatest advancements in environmental quality were those which eradicated biological pollution, achieved by heroes of immunology like Edward Jenner, John Snow, and Jonas Salk.
Industrial pollution is another story. But industry is not interested in polluting, industry is interested in profit. Offering cleaner, more efficient products and using cleaner processes can please customers and reduce risk and liability, both potentially profitable strategies. A vivid example of improvement in environmental quality due to commercial innovation is provided by a description of London in 1890, prior to the arrival of the automobile.
The whole of London's crowded wheeled traffic—which in parts of the City was at times dense beyond movement—was dependent on the horse: lorry, wagon, bus, hansom and “growler,” and coaches and carriages and private vehicles of all kinds, were appendages to horses. Meredith refers to the “anticipatory stench of its cab-stands” on railway approach to London: but the characteristic aroma—for the nose recognized London with gay excitement—was of stables, which were commonly of three or four storeys with inclined ways zigzagging up the faces of them; [their] middens kept the castiron filigree chandeliers, that glorified the reception rooms of upper and lower middle class homes throughout London, encrusted with dead flies and, in late summer, veiled with living clouds of them.
A more assertive mark of the horse was the mud that, despite the activities of a numerous corps of red-jacketed boys who dodged among wheels and hooves with pan and brush in service to iron bins at the pavement-edge, either flooded the streets with churnings of “pea soup” that at times collected in pools over-brimming the kerbs, and at others covered the road-surface as with axle grease or bran-laden dust to the distraction of the wayfarer. In the first case, the swift-moving hansom or gig would fling sheets of such soup—where not intercepted by trousers or skirts—completely across the pavement, so that the frontages of the Strand throughout its length had an eighteen-inch plinth of mud-parge thus imposed upon it. The pea-soup condition was met by wheeled “mud-carts” each attended by two ladlers clothed as for Icelandic seas in thigh boots, oilskins collared to the chin, and sou’westers sealing in the back of the neck. Splash Ho! The foot passenger now gets the mud in his eye! The axle-grease condition was met by horse-mechanized brushes and travellers in the small hours found fire-hoses washing away residues....
And after the mud the noise, which, again endowed by the horse, surged like a mighty heart-beat in the central districts of London’s life. It was a thing beyond all imaginings. The streets of workaday London were uniformly paved in “granite” sets … and the hammering of a multitude of iron-shod hairy heels upon [them], the deafening, side-drum tatoo of tyred wheels jarring from the apex of one set to the next like sticks dragging along a fence; the creaking and groaning and chirping and rattling of vehicles, light and heavy, thus maltreated; the jangling of chain harness and the clanging or jingling of every other conceivable thing else, augmented by the shrieking and bellowings called for from those of God’s creatures who desired to impart information or proffer a request vocally—raised a din that … is beyond conception. It was not any such paltry thing as noise. It was an immensity of sound…
—H. B. Creswell, Architectural Review, December 1958, quoted in The Ultimate Resource 2
Henry Ford would soon provide an alternative that was cleaner for both the owner and the passer-by. The automobile would become so successful that, despite being far less polluting than the horse, it would itself become a major factor in air quality.
Get the lead out
The benefits enumerated in the EPA report are enormous. Reduced health complications and mortality from declining particulate matter emissions may be the biggest single factor, but the story of lead was endlessly fascinating and captured my attention.
Bill Bryson told much of the story in Chapter 10 of A Short History of Nearly Everything. Ohio inventor Thomas Midgley Jr., now known as “The Worst Inventor in History” and “The World’s Most Destructive Man,” discovered that tetraethyl lead would improve the performance of gasoline engines by reducing knock. General Motors, DuPont, and Standard Oil formed the Ethyl Corporation to manufacture TEL and leaded gasoline was soon available worldwide. (Midgley would go on to develop chlorofluorocarbons as refrigerants, and CFCs were used in consumer goods worldwide as well, until it was discovered that they destroyed the protective ozone layer in the stratosphere.)
A powerful neurotoxin, lead was known to be poisonous in antiquity. In August 1923, DuPont opened a TEL manufacturing plant in Deepwater, New Jersey. An exposed worker died within thirty days, and more deaths followed, but these went unreported. In September, General Motors contracted the U.S. Bureau of Mines to research the hazards of TEL. The bureau “saw itself as in the mining promotion business, with much of its scientific work undertaken in collaboration with industry” but GM took no chances and requested that progress reports not be publicized, to avoid “scare headlines and false impressions.”
GM also formed an internal medical committee to investigate the danger, but Irénée du Pont, head of the company that got its start making gunpowder, was unfazed by their unpublished conclusions. “I have read the doctors’ report and am not disturbed by the severity of the findings.” He pointed out that they were also manufacturing nitroglycerin, which was even more dangerous than lead.
In 1924, two GM employees died of lead poisoning at a Dayton pilot plant making TEL, then five workers died at a Standard Oil TEL plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey. More than 80% of workers at the New Jersey plant died or suffered severe poisoning. These disasters received some publicity, and local authorities in New York City, New Jersey, and Philadelphia responded by banning the gasoline additive.
Recognizing a threat to their growing market, the industry applied to Washington for assistance in protecting the profitable invention. President Coolidge obliged, and the U.S. Surgeon General launched a task force. Manufacturers put production on hold while the investigation proceeded. The task force was composed of Midgley and other industry scientists, and concluded that there was “no danger.” The Bureau of Mines report also confirmed the safety of TEL, based on limited animal testing. Manufacture of TEL resumed.
Surgeon General Hugh S. Cumming would become a champion for lead. The task force recommended that the Public Health Service perform further research on TEL, given the rapid increase in the number of automobiles, but the Surgeon General requested no funding from Congress for research. Instead, for forty years, research on the health effects of leaded gasoline was underwritten by General Motors, Standard Oil, DuPont, Ethyl Corporation, and trade associations.
When British scientists expressed concerns about safety, the Surgeon General made contact and the British Ministry of Health promptly endorsed TEL as a safe additive, citing American research. In 1928 Cumming encouraged New York City to drop their ban on leaded gasoline, saying “There are no good grounds.” In 1931 he directed favorable reports on TEL to the Swiss minister of health.
By 1936, 90% of gasoline sold in the United States contained lead. At this point in the story, the free market advocate is in a tight spot. If government is failing to stop the disaster, and a powerful conglomerate dominates the business and successfully conceals the danger, how can the “invisible hand” do any good?
The Cushing Refining and Gasoline Company of Oklahoma
Cushing offered a lead-free gasoline, and ran an ad saying “It stands on its own merits and needs no dangerous chemicals—hence you can offer it to your customers without doubt or fear.” Ethyl Corporation pounced, complaining to the Federal Trade Commission that the small company was insinuating that leaded gasoline was somehow harmful. The FTC obliged with a 1937 Cease and Desist order blocking the competition from suggesting that leaded gasoline is “poisonous, unsafe and dangerous to the life and health of persons using such gasoline for motor fuel” and assuring everyone that TEL “is entirely safe to the health of motorists and the public.”
So much for the free market.
The Age of the Earth
Things boomed profitably along for decades, despite some scandal during the war. In 1959 Ethyl Corporation requested permission to increase the amount of TEL, their primary product, in gasoline, and the U.S. Public Health Service approved, still relying on industry-friendly research. Little did Ethyl know that a geochemist from Iowa was about to spoil everything.
In short, he calculated in 1956 the age of the earth at 4.55 billion years, very close to the value accepted today, by measuring the amount of radioactive decay of uranium in meteorite samples. Uranium decays to lead at a predictable rate, and Patterson found that he had to take extraordinary measures to exclude lead contamination in his laboratory. He analyzed ice-core samples from Greenland and concluded that lead used in modern manufacturing and gasoline permeated the biosphere and contaminated his meteorites.
In 1965 Patterson published “Contaminated and Natural Lead Environments of Man” and launched himself, fairly singlehandedly, against the entrenched business interests and their friends in Washington. It would be an uphill battle.
The U.S. Senate held hearings, chaired by Senator Edmund Muskie, on leaded gasoline. Patterson testified in opposition to longtime industry scientist Robert Kehoe, pointing out that “It is not just a mistake for public health agencies to cooperate and collaborate with industries in investigating and deciding whether public health is endangered — it is a direct abrogation and violation of the duties and responsibilities of those public health organizations.”
Meanwhile, Americans were enjoying their new interstate highway system and beginning to see nature as something to protect rather than exploit. The environmental movement had begun, and with it came demand for ecological action.
The Clean Air Act
Earth Day was first observed in April 1970, and President Nixon took notice of the interest, announcing the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency later that year. The Clean Air Act of 1970 greatly expanded federal authority over air pollution control, and required the EPA to create a list of air pollutants that “cause or contribute to air pollution which may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health or welfare.”
The EPA administrator designated four: ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, and nitrogen oxides. Lead, which had been banned in several cities 47 years earlier for health hazards, was not included.
Unwilling to set a standard for lead in air (required if lead were listed as a pollutant), the EPA punted, asking the National Academy of Sciences to measure atmospheric lead and provide guidance. NAS followed the usual pattern in choosing members for the committee:
• Clair Patterson, world expert on environmental lead: excluded
• Harry Schroeder of Dartmouth, who had conducted some of the only transgenerational studies of lead at low dose: excluded
• T. J. Chow, who had published fundamental studies of atmospheric lead deposition in Greenland ice cores: excluded
• John Goldsmith, head of the California Health Department’s Division of Epidemiology, who had published a groundbreaking study of the relationship between air lead levels and blood lead levels in Science: excluded
• Robert Kehoe, of industry-financed Kettering Laboratory: included
• Lloyd Tepper, of Kettering Laboratory: included
• Kamran Habibi, of DuPont: included
• John Perrard, of DuPont: included
• Gary Ter Harr, of Ethyl Corporation: included
• Gordon Stopps, of DuPont: excluded. But he still wrote two critical sections of the NAS report, on adult epidemiology and lead alkyls. In numerous earlier publications, Stopps had stated that TEL was harmless.
The NAS report, “Airborne Lead in Perspective” was a failure, did not address the questions for which the committee had been formed, and concluded that there was no evidence of toxicity for low levels of lead. Ethyl Corporation’s stock rose 20% the next day.
But EPA had another mechanism to exploit. When Congress wrote the Clean Air Act, it was known that catalytic converters would be needed in cars to control hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide. These used platinum, which becomes ineffective when contaminated by lead. Since legislating on behalf of the health of human beings was too difficult, the EPA could mandate controls on lead to protect these devices.
In 1973, EPA announced a phase-down of lead content in gasoline, on a five-year schedule. This time, the White House stepped in, getting the Office of Management and Budget involved. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare, slighted at a loss of importance when EPA assumed some of its authority, discredited EPA data to OMB. Big Lead took advantage of the chaos, pulled strings, and EPA delayed regulation once more.
Frustrated at the lack of progress, a lawyer at the National Resources Defense Council, David Schoenbrod, sued the EPA. The District Court of Appeals found that the EPA administrator had illegally delayed setting a standard for lead and ordered him to comply.
Meanwhile, the oil crisis was setting in. American oil production had peaked in 1970, and improved fuel efficiency had always been touted as one of lead’s benefits. (In practice, American cars had gotten larger and more powerful year by year, more than negating the savings.) The EPA estimated that banning lead would lead to additional consumption of 30,000 barrels of oil a day.
Finally, in December 1973, final regulations requiring a phase-down for lead in gasoline were released. Ethyl Corporation and DuPont sued. The court found in favor of the industry, calling the regulations “arbitrary and capricious.” The EPA called for a rehearing, and the judgement was vacated, restoring the regulations. Industry appealed to the Supreme Court, and lost. Lead was on the way out.
Three years later, in 1976, the EPA was still making excuses, so Schoenbrod sued them again. The court ordered the EPA to set a standard for lead levels in air and “end the administrative foot dragging.”
The National Ambient Air Quality Standard for Lead (EPA document 600177502) finally appeared in December 1977, and atmospheric lead concentrations in major cities dropped significantly by 1980.
Then Ronald Reagan was elected, promising to do away with needless regulation. He appointed industry-friendly Ann Gorsuch administrator of the EPA and reduced the agency’s budget. A scandal erupted when the administrator visited a small refinery and implied that they need not worry that costly regulations would actually be enforced.
By now the large players, like Exxon and Amoco, had already made expensive revisions to their refineries to comply with regulations, and they spoke up in favor of the lead controls, lest small competitors enjoy an advantage. With Big Oil now on board, and the White House under pressure from Congress, the EPA relented. The Environmental Health Letter carried the headline “EPA Reverses Position, Toughens Regulations on Lead in Gasoline.”
Research into the dangers of lead continued, demonstrating significant harm, especially to the developing brains of children, and finding no clearly safe exposure level.
Ethyl continues to manufacture TEL today, for use in fuel for 167,000 aircraft in the United States and gasoline in a few remaining overseas markets. Friends of the Earth has asked EPA to look into the situation:
The Secret History of Lead by Jamie Lincoln Kitman
The Ethyl-Poisoned Earth, Damn Interesting by Alan Bellows
The Removal of Lead from Gasoline: Historical and Personal Reflections, by Herbert L. Needleman
Getting the Lead Out of Gasoline Around the Globe, National Resources Defense Council
Remarkably researched; my compliments!
I've not anything to add except for a quick footnote. Ann Gorsuch was apparently quickly replaced by Bill Ruckelshaus, who had been Nixon's first EP administrator. From the dawn of EPA to the 1990s, according to a recent On The Media episode, the environment was more of a people vs. big business issue, and not a Democrat vs. Republican issue. Gorsuch's son now sits awaiting a confirmation to the Supreme Court. It is difficult to imagine him being a staunch defender of the environment, although none of us shares our parents' views entirely.