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In adults, elevated blood-lead levels are related to hypertension and cardiovascular disease, particularly strokes, heart attacks and premature deaths.
GM and Standard Oil sold their leaded gasoline subsidiary, the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation, to Albemarle Paper in 1962, while Du Pont only cleaned up its act recently, but all hope to leave their leaded gasoline paternity a hushed footnote to their inglorious pasts.Worldwide, it is estimated that modern man’s lead exposure is 300 to 500 times greater than background or natural levels.Indeed, a 1983 report by Britain’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution concluded that lead was dispersed so widely by man in the twentieth century that “it is doubtful whether any part of the earth’s surface or any form of life remains uncontaminated by anthropogenic [man-made] lead.” While lead from mining, paint, smelting and other sources is still a serious environmental problem, a recent report by the government’s Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry estimated that the burning of gasoline has accounted for 90 percent of lead placed in the atmosphere since the 1920s.(The magnitude of this fact is placed in relief when one considers the estimate of the US Public Health Service that the associated health costs from a parallel problem–the remaining lead paint in America’s older housing–total in the multibillions.) Classical acute lead poisoning occurs at high levels of exposure, and its symptoms–blindness, brain damage, kidney disease, convulsions and cancer–often leading, of course, to death, are not hard to identify.
The effects of pervasive exposure to lower levels of lead are more easily miscredited; lead poisoning has been called an “aping disease” because its symptoms are so frequently those of other known ailments.
Nor is this history important solely as a cautionary retort to those who would doubt the need for aggressive regulation of industry, when commercial interests ask us to sanction genetically modified food on the basis of their own scientific assurances, just as the merchants of lead once did.