I love my life here in Romania and I love living in the centru of Cluj, with easy access to the park, the spacious plazas, the shops, the cafes, the heat, the light and the life of this vibrant city. But even though I don’t own a car, I am constantly plagued by them, probably my greatest source of daily frustration.
Not long ago, I was trying to walk through my relatively quiet neighborhood. I couldn’t walk on the sidewalk because an armada of cars were parked helter skelter, wheels up and over, side mirrors just centimeters from the fences. I couldn’t walk in the street because of all of the cars that were hurriedly rumbling past. Was there no place left for me? Couldn’t a person just walk in peace down a small street in this city?
And then suddenly a very old memory swam up in my vision, something I’d long forgotten from my distant childhood.
Fill ‘er up with the “regular”
I remember my father cursing vehemently. I am in no way casting aspersions on him as I’ve since grown up and can now understand his frustration. He’d pulled up to a gas (petrol) station only to realize at the last moment that he’d stopped at the wrong pump. He restarted the engine and, after a series of careful maneuvers, swung us around to the right one.
I remember sitting inside the now-quiet car as my father began pumping gasoline. What did that enormous sign out front mean? What was “regular”? And why did we have to move the car after accidentally pulling up in front of a pump labeled “unleaded”?
Several decades later I found myself in Romania in a car with two friends. I couldn’t speak the language very well but even I could parse out what the sign meant (the profession of being a “plumber” in English derives from the Latin word for lead – in modern Romanian the word for lead is plumb). Unbelievably, in Romania you could still buy leaded gasoline.
How could this be? Didn’t everyone know how dangerous leaded gasoline was?
The real Chuck Norris
For a time it seemed like all of my Romanian friends were in love with Chuck Norris jokes. Call it an “internet meme” if you like. I received hundreds, maybe thousands of them in my email and my Facebook and I heard them in conversations in bars and cafes. Chuck Norris has counted to infinity – twice and Chuck Norris once made a Happy Meal cry.
The jokes of course are based on the actor, once a B-list clown who appeared in cheap action films. He was given a second wind of popularity as the cartoonish nature of his movies lent themselves to the silly meme, the actor graciously embracing the backhanded compliments. And for a minute or two the whole internet had itself a good time.
But long before the actor recorded his first film, there was a strange aristocratic man named Charles Norris and it is to him that I dedicate this entire article.
A hundred years ago, New York City’s government was a mess. Powerful political bosses used gangland techniques to win elections and would then reward their backers with plum jobs in the administration, much like how Romania is run today.
One of those plum jobs was that of coroner, whose job it was to take possession of all dead bodies. Being a coroner was a great way to make money. You could refuse to hand over the body to the grieving family unless they paid you a fee. If someone had committed suicide, you could accept a donation to change the cause of death to something less embarrassing. And for the right price, you could even change a murder to a “natural” death.
That all changed with Charles Norris, who was appointed as New York City’s first Medical Examiner. Instead of hundreds of untrained and politically-connected coroners taking charge of bodies, now a single office at a central location, headed by an actual medical doctor, was responsible for determining the cause of death.
Charles Norris and his staff singlehandedly invented almost all of the techniques of modern forensic (Ro: medicina legala) investigations. If you’ve ever watched CSI, Law and Order or the dozens of other police procedural shows, you’ve seen how careful examination of dead bodies can lead to the conviction of criminals for murder and other serious offenses.
That is Charles Norris’ legacy to us all. For it was he, along with the brilliant immigrant chemist Alexander Gettler, who pioneered the use of science to solve crimes.
100 years of stupidity
Primitive automobiles were invented at the end of the 19th century but it was only after World War 1 that the mass production of gasoline-powered cars and trucks really took off.
Two very powerful industries were built around this change in transportation. First was the consolidation of the petroleum giants, then called Standard Oil and Gulf Oil but now better known to us as ExxonMobil, Chevron and Shell. The second was the automobile manufacturers themselves, principally General Motors (makers of Chevrolet and Opel brands sold in Romania, among others) and the company started by that crazy old fascist and rabid anti-Semite Henry Ford, with his pioneering work in assembly line manufacturing.
Cars in the 1920s were much different than the vehicles choking my neighborhood here today in Romania. For one thing, their engines were much smaller and less powerful and they were also quite inefficient. Even today, roughly 75% of the energy created by burning gasoline in a car’s motor goes to producing heat and only 25% of the energy is used to actually move the car forward.
Even worse, a single occupant weighs about 100 kilograms while the car itself weighs on the order of 2,000 kilograms so around 99% of the energy used to move a car is used to move the car itself and only a fraction of 1% is used to move the person(s) inside. Therefore 75% of gasoline’s energy is wasted as heat and 99% of the remaining 25% is used to move the car itself.
I don’t think it would even be possible to devise a less efficient mode of transport than a gasoline-powered vehicle and yet we must remember that these statistics are for modern cars. In the 1920s, while cars weighed less, their engines were even more inefficient.
Nonetheless, gasoline-powered cars were amazing pieces of technology for their time and far more glamorous than horses and so millions of them were purchased and driven around the world.
One of the original problems with inefficiency in gasoline-powered motors was something called “knock”, a result of incomplete combustion of fuel in the engine.
A certain chemical compound called Tetraethyllead (TEL) was discovered to reduce engine “knock” and thus improve the efficiency of gasoline-powered automobile engines. The only problem was that TEL contained lead and everyone knew that lead was poisonous. TEL was successful at improving fuel efficiency but how could it be sold to the public when it contained such a toxic element?
The answer, of course, was marketing. General Motors and Standard Oil (now ExxonMobil) along with Dupont Chemicals formed a joint company called the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation. The marketers began running advertisements touting the new fuel additive, calling it “Ethyl” and never once mentioned that it was made out of lead.
At first, everything seemed great. By 1924 the TEL additive had garnered over 36 million dollars in profits to the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation. Sure, a few workers at the Dupont plant which made TEL were dying but that was a small price to pay for progress.
A few workers deaths was not much of a concern in those days because all across America there were factories and sweatshops operating with little to no oversight. Even children worked long hours and there was very little governmental regulation of working conditions. The circumstances that caused the Triangle Shirtwaist fire were still prevalent throughout most of America.
What nearly brought TEL’s downfall however were reports in the media about a “Loony (Crazy) Gas” at the Dupont manufacturing facility. Several workers had “suddenly” gone insane, screaming, yelling, breaking things, talking to imaginary people, hallucinating as they snatched at imaginary butterflies in the air. One poor soul named Joseph Leslie was kept in a psychiatric hospital for 40 years after his exposure to this mysterious “loony gas”.
The TEL manufacturing plant was in New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from New York City. The authorities in New Jersey knew that they did not have the expertise to determine what was driving the men insane and so they called on the help of Charles Norris and his team. They sent over seven bodies of the dead workers from the TEL plant and asked him to determine what had killed them.
It wasn’t long before Norris and Gettler determined that all of the dead men had been killed by a massive exposure to lead.
Business as usual
The day after Norris released his report, a spokesperson for Standard Oil told the New York Times that the men from the TEL plant “had probably gone insane because they worked too hard.”
You can still find that quote in the archives from the October 27, 1924 edition of the newspaper, something I think about a lot when companies like Chevron (and commenters on this blog) are busy telling Romanians how fracking (Ro: gaz de sist) is completely safe.
Nonetheless, despite the protestations from Standard Oil, the authorities in New Jersey shut down the TEL plant. City authorities in nearby Philadelphia and even in New York City itself began to ban the use of TEL in gasoline. TEL was turning into a public relations disaster as more and more people began to distrust putting lead into their cars, even if it did have the shiny and futuristic name of “Ethyl”.
A commission was formed at the federal (national) level, headed by the United States Public Health Service (PHS) to investigate the situation. On one hand, the manufacturers of TEL were claiming that the additive was safe, that only small amounts were mixed with every gallon of gasoline and that “steps had been taken” at the manufacturing plant to reduce harm to the workers. On the other hand, public health authorities, including Charles Norris and his team, had determined that even small exposures to lead were detrimental to public health. So who to believe?
The PHS at that time was a division of the Department of the Treasury. Luckily for the petroleum industry, the head of the Treasury Department was Andrew W. Mellon, the third richest man in America and the majority owner of the Gulf Oil Corporation (now ExxonMobil), which was using TEL to boost its profits. He decided to appoint a panel of chemistry “experts” to investigate the alleged dangers of TEL, a team of scientists headed by none other than Charles Kettering himself.
Thomas Midgley, still employed by General Motors and the lead chemist on the team that invented TEL, decided to stage a public relations stunt to “prove” that leaded gasoline was safe. In front of a team of reporters, Midgley washed his hands in a bowl of TEL-infused gasoline and then held the bowl up to his nose and took several deep breaths of the liquid, telling journalists that he could do that “every day without having any health problems whatsoever”.
What he had failed to tell the press however was that a year earlier he had nearly died from lead poisoning and had had to take several months off of work to recover his health. He then returned to General Motors and developed yet another poison to destroy the planet for his corporate masters, chlorofluorocarbons.
Kettering, Midgley and the rest of the panel of “experts” soon dutifully reported to the PHS that lead emissions from cars using TEL-infused gasoline were perfectly safe. The bans on sales were soon dropped and leaded gasoline continued to be sold throughout the United States until it was phased out by 1986. Over here in Romania it was only finally banned in 2005 and in a few countries around the world it is still used, including in poor old war-torn Iraq.
Dumb and dumber
One of the greatest tragedies in this sordid saga is that other alternatives for improving fuel efficiency without the use of lead were already in use by the time TEL was invented. During the public debate in the 1920’s, a very brave woman named Alice Hamilton had shown how dangerous TEL was and she had the courage to tell Charles Kettering to his face, “You are nothing but a murderer!” after he told the committee that leaded gasoline was safe.
At the time when GM, Dupont and Standard Oil were using slick marketing techniques to sell their TEL, over in Europe a much safer alternative was being used – alcohol. Today’s ethanol, used sometimes as an additive and sometimes as the main fuel itself, is essentially the same alcohol as the substance that people drink.
I used to have a friend who kept a bottle of vodka in his car for “emergencies”, in case he was somewhere and wanted a quick drink or in case his car ran out of gasoline. In a pinch, any modern car can be powered by ordinary alcohol. Scientists in the 1920s had already proven that alcohol blends provided the same fuel efficiency (or better) and reduction of engine “knock” that TEL did.
Of course the “problem” with alcohol is that anyone could make it, and from almost anything, including wood, weeds and even rotting garbage, not to mention standard agricultural products like corn and soybeans. Complicated lead formulas, on the other hand, could only be made in expensive processing plants and so were thus far more profitable.
When gasoline with lead is burned in a car, extremely fine particles are emitted from the car’s exhaust. This dust becomes mixed with the soil and covers everything. The dangers are so well-known today that the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) is actively working on banning the use of leaded gasoline around the world.
Because children’s bodies are smaller (and thus their ingestion of lead is at a higher ratio to their body weight) and more sensitive, they are the ones who suffer the most from the secondary lead contamination of soil (which gets into everything, including the food that they eat).
While it rarely kills outright, it causes a multitude of problems. From the UNEP (PDF) report on leaded fuels:
In children, lead levels too low to present obvious symptoms cause reductions in IQ and attention span, reading and other learning disabilities, hyperactivity, behavior problems, impaired growth and hearing loss.
That’s right. When it doesn’t actually kill you, it actually impairs your brain function and makes you stupider.
From a lengthy investigation into lead by Mother Jones:
But there’s another reason to take the lead hypothesis seriously, and it might be the most compelling one of all: Neurological research is demonstrating that lead’s effects are even more appalling, more permanent, and appear at far lower levels than we ever thought.
For starters, it turns out that childhood lead exposure at nearly any level can seriously and permanently reduce IQ. Blood lead levels are measured in micrograms per deciliter, and levels once believed safe—65 μg/dL, then 25, then 15, then 10—are now known to cause serious damage.
The EPA now says flatly that there is “no demonstrated safe concentration of lead in blood,” and it turns out that even levels under 10 μg/dL can reduce IQ by as much as seven points. An estimated 2.5 percent of children nationwide have lead levels above 5 μg/dL.
I’ll add here that in Charles Kettering’s report to the PHS, he stated that 80 μg/dL was “safe” for adults and 60 μg/dL for children.
Back to Mother Jones:
One set of scans found that lead exposure is linked to production of the brain’s white matter—primarily a substance called myelin, which forms an insulating sheath around the connections between neurons. Lead exposure degrades both the formation and structure of myelin, and when this happens, says Kim Dietrich, one of the leaders of the imaging studies, “neurons are not communicating effectively.” Put simply, the network connections within the brain become both slower and less coordinated.
A second study found that high exposure to lead during childhood was linked to a permanent loss of gray matter in the prefrontal cortex—a part of the brain associated with aggression control as well as what psychologists call “executive functions”: emotional regulation, impulse control, attention, verbal reasoning, and mental flexibility.
One way to understand this, says Kim Cecil, another member of the Cincinnati team, is that lead affects precisely the areas of the brain “that make us most human.”
So lead is a double whammy: It impairs specific parts of the brain responsible for executive functions and it impairs the communication channels between these parts of the brain.
Supradoza de Prostamol
Almost all of these long-term studies of lead have taken place in the United States and other wealthy western countries. I am completely unaware of any scientific study conducted in Romania to measure what effect using leaded gasoline for almost a century has had on the children and adults in this country.
Would IQs be higher in Romania if leaded gasoline had been outlawed in 1925 instead of 2005? Would people be better able to focus and keep their attention on important matters, showing much less widespread apathy if their brains hadn’t been poisoned by leaded gasoline? Would there be less lethal ignorance in this country? Would the Prime Minister be able to organize and maintain a stable government without such an abundance of stupidity if he and his fellow politicians hadn’t been poisoned their entire lives by leaded gasoline?
Unfortunately, there’s no way to know. Currently the government is in full crisis mode (again) and the interim Health Minister is Nico Banicioiu, a man who once had sex with an underage girl when he was the Youth and Sports Minister, a man who caught a corruption case in 2010 and a man who once threatened to threatened to kick a fellow MPs teeth out during a 2011 parliamentary hearing (ironically) on abuses committed by members of parliament.
Banicioiu is replacing Eugen Nicolaescu as the Health Minister, who lasted just a year in the post, who replaced Vasile Cepoi, who had to resign following his own corruption case, and before Cepoi it was Ladislau Ritli, a man who was once fired after 20 babies died under his incompetent care at a maternity hospital.
Clearly in Romania’s turbulent and ever-changing government, with cabinet positions given away as plums to political cronies, it is highly doubtful that the government is ever going to launch an in-depth investigation into such “trivial” concerns as whether or not 90 years of exposure to leaded gasoline had a significantly detrimental effect on the mental and physical well-being of its citizens.
But I wonder. I really do. According to all the studies, there is an approximately 23 year lag, the amount of time from when leaded gasoline is banned to when you can see a measurable improvement in IQ and the ability to think more clearly.
If this is true, we’ll have to wait until the year 2028 to see the results. I just don’t know if we can afford to wait that long.