Citation: Sharon Beder, 'Faster Cars, Slower Kids', Engineers Australia, April 2001, p. 51.

This is a final version submitted for publication. Minor editorial changes may have subsequently been made.

Sharon Beder's Other Publications

Why is it that governments so often fail to adequately regulate and restrict substances that are obviously harmful? A new book Trust Us, We're Experts! argues that it is because industry manipulates scientific studies and pays off scientists to convince regulators that the problems don't exist. The authors of the book, Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, are from the Center for Media and Democracy in the US and they edit a very interesting magazine called PR Watch.

One of their case studies is lead in petrol. Knowledge of the adverse health effects of lead goes back centuries. Yet companies were permitted to add lead to petrol for decades before anything was done about it. During this time some 30 million tons of lead were consequently added to the environment in the US alone.

General Motors' discovery in the 1920s that adding tetraethyl lead to petrol could raise the compression and power of internal combustion engines gave it an advantage over its competitors and enabled it to become the biggest car maker in the US.

The health problems associated with lead were so well known at the time that in Australia the lead content of paints was being regulated. The dangers of tetraethyl lead, in particular, became evident in the early processing plants. At one plant in New Jersey five workers out of 49 died in a five day period and 35 developed symptoms of lead poisoning such as severe dementia. Many deaths and poisonings also occurred at other tetraethyl lead plants.

Nevertheless the manufacturers of tetraethyl lead, such as DuPont, argued that the amount of lead that would be discharged by cars would be infinitesimal. General Motors hired the US Bureau of Mines to assess the risks associated with leaded petrol and the Bureau, which had its own interest in the continued mining of lead, found that there was no danger of exposure to lead from car exhausts.

The medical director of the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation, Robert Kehoe, became one pf the most prominent scientist in the debate. He argued that lead occurred 'naturally' in humans and that low levels of exposure to lead were safe.

Industry spokespeople argued for the use of leaded petrol in the name of progress: "Our continued development of motor fuels is essential in our civilizationÉ Because some animals die and some do not die in some experiments, shall we give up this thing entirely?"

Those scientists who spoke up about the dangers of leaded petrol were attacked. A doctor who found that children were developing learning disabilities and personality disorders due to lead exposure was threatened by the lead industry with a million dollar law suit in 1939. In the 1960s the industry tried to have a scientist at the California Institute of Technology dismissed because his research showed leaded petrol could be harmful to public health.

In the 1970s Herbert Needleman studied 2500 school children and found that although they had been exposed to levels of lead that were considered by the authorities to be safe, lead was accumulating in their bodies and impairing their mental development leading to lower intelligence, hyperactivity, attention deficits and delinquency. An industry-funded scientist attacked his work but the resulting 2 year EPA study of his research only found some minor statistical errors that did not affect his conclusions. However a draft EPA report of the errors was widely disseminated by PR firm Hill and Knowlton in an effort to discredit Needleman. Although the EPA accepted Needleman's findings Hill and Knowlton continued to distribute the draft report, and the industry continued to attack Needleman's credibility through to the 1990s.

Rampton and Stauber's book includes other detailed case studies of industry attempts to prevent the regulation of hazardous substances such as asbestos, silica dust, tobacco and also case studies on industry efforts to manipulate scientific knowledge of the risks associated with genetically modified food and global warming. The book clearly demonstrates that it would be na•ve to uncritically accept what experts say without exploring who is paying them and considering what opposing experts have to say.

Reference: Sheldon Rampton and John Stauber, Trust us, We’re Experts!, Penguin Putnam, New York, 2000.