Getting the lead out: a quirky tale of saving the world

GETTINGLEADOUTThis somewhat autobiographical missive was sparked by recent research that confirms something long suspected — our civilization dodged a bullet a while back. A bullet made of lead. We dodged it thanks to science, open argument, and the power of dramatically-conveyed evidence…

… plus a fascinating coincidence in which I played a minor-but-interesting role.

== A root cause of violence? ==

Lead has long been rumored as a major culprit of individual and societal downfall – even in the collapse of the Roman Empire. Starting in the 1960s we found that remediation of houses that had lead-based paint correlated with improved IQ tests for children in poor neighborhoods.

A connection with violent crime now seems to be statistically proved.  The elimination of lead-based octane enhancers from gasoline in the United States just may have been the most dramatically cost effective step taken to improve the lives of Americans, and then people around the world.

Lead_CrimeA couple of snippets from a fascinating article, America’s Real Criminal Element, Lead“…if you add a lag time of 23 years, lead emissions from automobiles explain 90 percent of the variation in violent crime in America.”  and “If childhood lead exposure really did produce criminal behavior in adults, you’d expect that in states where consumption of leaded gasoline declined slowly, crime would decline slowly too. Conversely, in states where it declined quickly, crime would decline quickly.” And that’s exactly what the data showed.

Read this fascinating look into how science can be used to rescue us from devastating errors, then contemplate whether those now waging relentless war on science are dangerously life-threatening to your kids..

== Strange angles to a weighty matter ==

Okay so here is my first of three interesting addenda you won’t find in the article:  Leaded gas is still sold in some countries.  These include Afghanistan, Iraq, North Korea, Algeria, Yemen and Myanmar,  Holy mackaral, just look at that list and tell me there aren’t alarm bells.

lead-poisoning chartSecond addendum: this is almost certainly not the only case where some environmental factor may have debilitated or hampered millions of humans into being or behaving less than they could be.  Beyond malnutrition, poor sanitation and general poverty, I mean.  Or even the lobotomizing effects of TV, video games and Twitter. Take the parasitical paramecium Toxoplasma gondii which is endemic in many populations around the globe, entering human brains and – according to strong studies – systematically altering the behavior of tens or hundreds of millions on this planet.  Suppose we find even more such mind-altering infections?  Would that be good news, allowing us to use simple medical techniques and thus eliminate harmful behavior biases that cynics always assumed to be inherent in human nature?  Should this perhaps be made a really, really top priority for research?

I’ll get to my third addendum – the personal one, describing my own role – in a moment.  First though…

== How we got the lead out ==

car-exhaustBy 1970, some far-seeing types had begun pushing for regulation or legislation to curb this horrific poison  pouring from the tail pipes of millions of automobiles. But they got nowhere, foiled by The Ethyl Corporation (TEC), which successfully pioneered obfuscate-and-delay tactics identical to those later applied by the tobacco industry and then by the Climate Denialist Cult.  Using some of the same public relations firms and “think tanks.”

That year, opinion polls showed a majority of Americans opposed to changes that might (according to scare-mongering by TEC)  cause everyone’s car engines to erode or explode, if we were all forced to use abominably inferior unleaded gas.  That, in turn, would destroy the economy, all because a bunch of pointy-headed scientists, doctors and public health officials were spreading chicken-little panic about a “purely hypothetical and overblown danger.” That was the situation in August 1970.

And yet, by 1972, the situation was transformed! In less than two years’ time, with rapidly changing public attitudes, the EPA launched an initiative to phase out leaded gasoline. What led to the plummet in support for lead?  Could a simple demonstration have been responsible?

Let’s get to that final addendum.  This one is a personal anecdote. For you see, I was an eyewitness and participant in an event of some historic significance, though it has only been in the last few years that I came to realize just how important it was.

Many of us thought we were participating in something like a great big science fair.  Little more.  But we helped to change the world.

== The Clean Air Car Race of 1970 ==

Do smoking cars cause CACR?

hybridIn July and August, 1970, while an undergraduate at the California Institute of Technology, I served as a member of the coordinating committee for the Clean Air Car Race, which pitted 44 student-built vehicles against each other in many categories (electric, propane, natural gas, hybrid….) for a rally-race from MIT across the continent to Caltech. There were some truly amazing innovations.  No, not the electric cars, which were way, way not ready for prime time! But several of the very first hybrid gas-electric vehicles participated, including one from the University of Toronto that we all voted “grooviest car” because it had regenerative braking and several other features now standard on your Prius.  It required a full-time co-driver, in those days, way back when putting a computer in a car was the stuff of science fiction.  But it worked and got real attention.

There was also a truck propelled by a Lear Jet turbine engine that scored well on exhaust quality, but got a zero in the noise pollution part of the competition, leaving a trail of seared underpasses and shattered toll booths across the nation. (It also parked outside my room at Caltech for a week, after the rally, while the drivers gave ear-splitting demos to the press, ouch!)


And yes, here I am, among the cars and drivers and officials of the 1970 CACR, posing for a full-page center spread in LIFE Magazine below the dome at MIT.  I’m the fellow with all that black hair and no tie, standing in the front row at the far left, looking like I actually know what I’m doing there.

Surprised by the prominent national coverage?  That’s nothing!  We were mentioned every day during the race by Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News. Much of America tracked our progress. It was one year after the Apollo 11 landing, so folks were expecting good things from science. And we delivered! Though perhaps not precisely in the way that we imagined.

== Okay, then what was world-changing? ==

So what does all of this have to do with getting the lead out of gas?  Simple. There were three cars participating in CACR whose sole “clean air” attribute was that they ran on unleaded gas.  Deliberately kept in stock condition, these performed perfectly and made it to Pasadena without a glitch… which is more than could be said for the entry subsidized by the The Ethyl Corporation.

Remember all that press coverage?  These results got lots of play. Moreover, while we students were enthralled by things like hybrid-electrics (and CACR 1970 definitely helped push those ideas into research labs at Toyota and Honda and Wayne State etc, leading eventually to your Prius), it turns out that the most historically significant thing we accomplished was effected by the least romantic or innovative vehicles in the race!  Those three boring old internal combustion cars that made it across the country on unleaded gas… without any explosions. Not even any excess engine wear.  They still went vroom in Pasadena then were driven all the way back east again…

51wMygi0+FL… and the public noticed. Poll numbers shifted. Scare tactics about “panic-mongers destroying the economy” withered. Within 18 months the EPA had enough support to start acting to reduce lead poisoning, which soon resulted in far lower parts-per-million in the blood of children. And 20 years later, when a new generation of boys entered their “high crime age” something amazing happened.  They did a whole lot less crime.

Am I claiming credit for the sharp decline of violence in the United States of America, and later around the world?  Nonsense. I wasn’t the chairman or prime mover of the Clean Air Car Race and anyway, there were thousands of scientists , engineers, doctors and activists at the forefront of the struggle against lead poisoning, folks who made the real difference.

Still, to have been  a participant and witness — and to realize, decades later, that a very public blow was struck, a clear demonstration that might have accelerated progress by a year or two or more, affecting many lives? Well, that’s priceless.

It also teaches a lesson.  Good things happen because of human effort.  But sometimes in twisty ways that aren’t obvious at the time.  We were jazzed and excited (rightfully) by the hybrids. But all we accomplished was to interest some companies and labs who then needed thirty years to actually deliver them.

Meanwhile, we ignored or barely tolerated unromantic vehicles that cruised placidly amid the tech-dazzler jalopies. But that placid cruising was what most significantly and rapidly changed our world.

Ah well.  Story finished.  Except to suggest that we should all learn the basic lesson.  That progress will always be blocked by fools who emphasize short-sighted greed and play upon the prejudices of the gullible. By now their suite of tricks is well-known and perfected. But so should be our quiver of responses. Sometimes, the ongoing War on Science can best be stymied with symbols and imagery that are simple, clear… and utterly true.

Only now, on a related topic, a bit of lagniappe…

== A plague of psychopaths? ==

JEFFERSONRIFLEJust because overall statistical rates of violence have plummeted, that is poor comfort when tragedies such as Aurora or Newtown erupt, sending shock and despair through communities and terrifying the innocent, everywhere. As fresh calls arise for measures to reduce gun-related devastation, let me again suggest that sensible approaches to gun control will only happen if advocates study the needs and fears of moderate gun owners and then tailor proposals with those concerns in mind.

But let’s agree that weapons aren’t the core problem. (Nor will filling our schools with armed guards provide a solution.) Indeed, much has been said recently about the fact that mass-shooting calamities are rooted in desperate problems of mental disease and our inability to grapple with needed changes. We all need to start by doing what we can, locally, to see to it that those isolated “loners” out there get shown less harshness and more kindness — more reason to feel connected — during formative years. A final end to bullying won’t make this go away. But if we haven’t reached out, we can never say we weren’t in part to blame.

Still… that only illustrates one end of a spectrum in which – it appears – civilization is being harmed by socipoaths at all levels, including the political and economic elite.

rageI’ve spoken elsewhere of the worst addictive problem in the world today – a plague of self-doped self-righteous indignation that is so rooted in brain chemistry that I gave a talk about it at the National Institute for Drugs and Addiction. Strong evidence suggests that much of our current “culture war” —  thwarting the American genius for can-do negotiation and pragmatic solutions — is amplified by this modern curse that prompts us to rage instead of negotiate.

Yes, the Indignation Addiction Plague is bad.  But sociopathy is another aspect: one that probably does just as much harm. Have a look at an interesting (even though overly partisan) perspective on psychological factors plaguing the high end of the socio-economic spectrum: Psychopaths holding America hostage?

“Dr. Dale Archer, a psychiatrist and frequent guest on “ Live” of all places writes, “Physically, studies have shown that the brain chemistry is different in powerful politicians, leading to sensation seeking and risky behavior. They have lower levels of the brain chemical monoamine oxidase-A, which means they have higher highs when they engage in risky behavior and that they get bored much more easily than the norm.” 

Another excerpt: “Psychopaths often appear normal, even charming. Underneath, they lack conscience and empathy, making them manipulative, volatile and often (but by no means always) criminal. The psychologist Kevin Dutton in his book, The Wisdom of Psychopaths, notes society, and especially Wall Street, admires and rewards many of the qualities of psychopaths – fearlessness, emotional sterility, supreme confidence, ruthlessness, lack of remorse, refusal to take responsibility, narcissism and delusions of grandeur. Who could argue that those characteristics virtually defined the Wall Street crowd responsible for blowing up the world’s economy in 2008? In fact, a recent study showed psychopaths were four times more common among business leaders than among the general population.” (Babiak P, Neumann CS, Hare RD. Corporate psychopathy: Talking the walk. Behav Sci Law. 2010 Mar-Apr;28(2):174-93.)

== A path to sanity ==

So, what can we conclude? Despite the fact that the lower and middle classes have languished economically, without growth in prosperity for 20 years, there appears to be less danger than ever of dissolving into chaotic, spasmodic violence from below, of the kind that lead poisoning once fostered.  That bullet is being dodged. If the lower castes get violent, it will be with cause, as in 1789 France, not out of inchoate, poison-induced rage.

OpenLetterAddictionWe are in danger, however, from other forms of mental illness. That plague of indignation, tearing through our middle class politics, causing neighbors to despise each other over abstract issues and to disdain experts like scientists.  Plus a tsunami of psychopathy where it is most dangerous, in the top layers where any self-serving machination or risky behavior can be rationalized away, the manner that such things always were, back in feudal times.  By proclaiming (without cause or evidence or justification) that “My kind of folks are inherently superior.”

The stakes are high.  But remember this.  Our scientific enlightenment is the great exception to the rank/repeated stupidity of feudal oligarchies that ran 99% of human cultures.  We are capable of detecting and noticing and even dodging some of the bullets that struck down other societies. We’ve proved this can happen. So let’s ignore the cynics of both left and right, and let’s believe we can do it again. And again. Dodging bullets and gradually making larger the fraction of children who grow up healthy, un-poisoned, with sane and knowledge-filled and vigorously curious-empathic brains…

…until our grandkids — vastly saner and smarter than we neanderthals can now imagine — are ready to take over.

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