A 'Gift of God'?: The Public Health Controversy over Leaded Gasoline during the 1920s

Rosner, David K.; Markowitz, Gerald E.

A recent article in the American Journal of Public Health noted the high correlation between the lead content of soil in urban areas and the elevated blood-lead levels of children in these cities. An editorial in the same issue of the Journal suggested that the "use of leaded gasoline and [high] traffic density" helped explain the is observation. For most public health experts, the controversy over the possible adverse effects of leaded gasoline began in the 1970s. What we intend to show in this paper is that as early as the 1920s public health experts , government officials, scientists, corporate leaders, labor, and the public were acutely aware of the dangers posed by the introduction of lead into gasoline. The depth of concern was manifested by the fact that leaded gasoline was banned in New York City for over three years and in many states and other municipalities for shorter periods of time. In 1925, the production of leaded gasoline was halted for over nine months, During the 1920s, the petrochemical and automobile industries emerged as the corporate backbone of the United States. Because the acceptance or rejection of leaded gasoline had profound implications for these industries. a spirited and often heated controversy arose. Public health professionals found themselves under intense pressure to sanction and minimize the hazards associated with the manufacture and use of this new potentially toxic substance and the pages of the American Journal of Public Health were compromised during the months and years when the fate of leaded gasoline was being decided. The debates of that era centered on issues of health and public policy that remain current today. Numerous questions arose regarding the evaluation of health hazards associated with new and potentially harmful substances, including: How can scientists evaluate the relative importance of acute and chronic effects of toxic substances? What should constitute adequate proof of safety or harm? What business, professional, or government agendas should be responsible for evaluating possibly dangerous substances? How does one study potentially toxic substances while protecting the right to health of human subjects? Does industry have to prove a new substance safe or do public health experts have to prove it dangerous?

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American Journal of Public Health

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Sociomedical Sciences
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February 6, 2013