Only a couple thousand deaths…

By Doug Struck
Globe Correspondent

Where have we heard this before? The government announces regulations to cut a dangerous ingredient from gasoline, one that kills and incapacitates thousands of people. The oil industry cries foul. That would cost too much, they say.

Those were the headlines Monday, when the Environmental Protection Agencyannounced rules to reduce sulfur in gasoline by two-thirds.

gasoline.jpegThe same headlines came 20, 30 and 40 years ago, as health authorities waged a painfully slow effort to overcome industry opposition to removing lead additives from gasoline.

The final success of that effort—a gradual reduction that by 1995 banned lead in gasoline—resulted in a dramatic decrease in the poisonous lead levels in the bodies of children.

It only took 1.1 million deaths worldwide to do it, according to a United Nations report.

The EPA moved Monday against sulfur additives as a major culprit in producing smog. Sulfurous tailpipe emissions are serious health hazards. The EPA said its rules will annually prevent between 770 and 2,000 premature deaths; 2,200 hospital admissions and asthma-related emergency room visits; 19,000 asthma attacks, 30,000 cases of symptoms of respiratory symptoms in children, and 1.4 million lost school and work days, according to the New York Times.

But wait, the rule will boost gasoline prices– by less than a penny, the EPA says; by as much as 9 cents a gallon, the oil industry claims. And it may add $75 to the price of a new car.

So the oil industry is dead set against this rule, and the EPA—the Republicans’ favorite whipping boy—will undoubtedly be castigated by those who believe big business should be left alone to look out for our health.

It’s “a threat to consumers, jobs and the economy,” Bob Greco, a lobbyist for theAmerican Petroleum Institute, told The Washington Post.

That’s what they said about lead. Lead had been known to be dangerous to humans ever since Hippocrates’ time. Australia made the link between lead-based paint and childhood poisonings in the 1890s. By 1909, France, Belgium, and Austria had banned lead-based paint in houses. In 1917, a pediatrician at Johns Hopkins found a link between poisoned small children and the lead-based paint on the bars of their cribs. In 1922, the League of Nations argued for a worldwide ban on interior paint with lead.

But in the United States, the government bowed to industry calls, and recommended the increased used of lead-based paint in homes. When automakers found they could use tetraethyl lead to make auto engines run better (instead of the alcohol-based ethanol Henry Ford preferred), the government gave General Motors, DuPont and Standard Oil patents for the stuff.

They did so despite evidence of its danger. In 1924 exposure to the chemical in Standard Oil’s lead processing plant in Bayway, New Jersey, led to five deaths and caused severe tremors, psychosis, hallucinations, and other symptoms of serious lead poisoning.

The government backed the auto and gas makers despite mounting evidence that lead coming from tailpipes of cars was getting in the bloodstream of children, causing severe neurological and physical damage. It affected the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys, and reproductive and nervous systems. In 1959 the U.S. Public Health Service approved a request to increase the lead content of gas.

Finally, in 1970, Congress passed the Clean Air Act, mainly to cut the smog choking cities, and the EPA started to restrict use of lead. The oil and auto industries fought and sued every step of the way, arguing it would create economic ruin. Vice President George H.W. Bush’s Task Force on Regulatory Relief pressured the EPA to back off in 1981.

The eminent muckraking columnist of the time, Jack Anderson, noted,
“Incredibly, the Reagan administration appears willing to risk the health of hundreds of thousands of anonymous preschoolers, just so the oil companies can make a few bucks.”

When the 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act finally spelled the end to leaded gasoline, the results were dramatic. The average blood lead level in the United States had dropped 78 percent by 1994.

And what about the predictions of economic catastrophe? Five of Fortune’s top six most profitable companies in the world are oil companies. These petroleum companies now claim removing sulfur will be too expensive.

After all, why let a couple of thousand premature deaths each year stand in the way of more profits?