Sat 17 Mar 2018
Looking back, it seems insane. Bluntly put, we took a known poison and – for three quarters of a century – used it in machines that puffed it out in breathable form. Then we drove them millions of miles a day, all over the world, regularly dosing billions of people with the toxin.
Now the full effects of using lead in petrol – surely the greatest ever mass poisoning experiment – are becoming clear, almost exactly 35 years after an award-winning Observer campaign caused it to be banned in Britain. They seem far worse than anyone imagined, and provide a stark warning against cutting pollution standards after Brexit. Last week, a massive new study concluded that lead is 10 times more dangerous than thought, and that past exposure now hastens one in every five US deaths. A similar effect is expected in Britain and other industrialised countries.
The study, published in the Lancet Public Health journal and believed to be the first to research the effects of low levels of lead exposure on the general public, also concludes there is no safe level of the toxic metal: people with the lowest detectable amounts were still affected.
Researchers at four North American universities, led by Bruce Lanphear, of Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, studied the fate of 14,289 people whose blood had been tested in an official US survey between 1988 and 1994. Four fifths of them had harboured levels of the toxic metal below what has, hitherto, been thought safe.
The study found that deaths, especially from cardiovascular disease, increased markedly with exposure, even at the lowest levels. It concluded that lead kills 412,000 people a year – accounting for 18% of all US mortality, not much less than the 483,000 who perish as a result of smoking.
Philip Landrigan, of New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine, possibly the world’s top expert on pollution’s effect on health, endorses the study and Alastair Hay, an expert on lead from Leeds University, calls it “very well done”. He adds that, since blood lead levels in the UK were similar, there could be much the same effect as in the US.