Petrol – leaded petrol

“There are still some myths out there, be­ing per­pe­trated by so-called ex­perts”

New Zealand Classic Car - - Price On -

Acou­ple of weeks prior to the Easter week­end break, I picked up a copy of our lo­cal pa­per, and ini­tially thought it was an old news­pa­per dat­ing from the 1990s. The head­line that caught my at­ten­tion read, “Lower IQ linked to lead fumes”.

Seems some­one has done yet an­other sur­vey on the evils of leaded petrol. This time, though, the claim is — and I quote, “Ex­haust fumes from the era of leaded petrol could be to blame for Ki­wis with lower IQS and so­cial stand­ing,” re­fer­ring to the lat­est find­ings of a Dunedin study. Be­fore I progress, it is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber an­other old adage, which goes, “Don’t be­lieve every­thing that you read in the news­pa­per” — un­less it is some­thing that I have writ­ten, of course!

As the handful of regular read­ers I have will, I hope, re­call, I did pen quite a few ar­ti­cles back in the 1990s on the topic of leaded petrol, hav­ing taken over from the lovely Dr Tr­ish Duffy, who was a regular con­trib­u­tor to this mag­a­zine un­til she be­gan to get “nasty cor­re­spon­dence and com­ments” from some dis­af­fected types who dared to dis­agree with her. How­ever, be­ing the thick-skinned in­di­vid­ual that I am, I was happy to take up the cause. So, why are peo­ple still ob­sessed with the ‘per­ils’ of leaded petrol some 22 years on?

Un­for­tu­nately, this study falls into the cat­e­gory of stud­ies that, when ac­tual ev­i­dence is ab­sent, use such words as ‘might’, ‘could’, ‘may’, and any­thing else that will let them off the hook when chal­lenged. It claims that, “Re­searchers at the long-run­ning Uni­ver­sity of Otago project said high lev­els of lead in New Zealand cities in the 1970s and 1980s ap­peared to be re­spon­si­ble

for a loss of in­tel­li­gence and occupational stand­ing among to­day’s adults.” It goes on to state “The long-term ef­fects of lead ex­po­sure are un­known due to a lack of re­search.” Re­ally? Then what ex­actly, I might ask, has the study achieved over the past 22 years?

I could have saved the Uni­ver­sity of Otago a lot of time and money had it both­ered to con­duct some re­search on the topic. I mean, what ex­actly does, ‘Could be to blame’ mean? Does it mean that it also couldn’t be to blame? If so, then what was the pur­pose of the study?

What ex­actly is leaded petrol?

Back in the early 1920s, a fel­low called Thomas Midgie dis­cov­ered that by adding a com­pound called tetraethyl lead to petrol he was able to in­crease the oc­tane level up to 110 for avi­a­tion fuel. Around 1975, some Gree­nie de­cided that lead in petrol needed to be got rid of, be­cause it is a poi­son. OK, lead is a poi­son, but only if it is ab­sorbed into the body. The ques­tion was: when lead was dis­cov­ered in our bod­ies, was it from the lead in petrol? This was the de­bate in the early 1980s.

The Na­tional En­ergy Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee re­ported that no sin­gle case of clin­i­cal lead poi­son­ing had ever been demon­strated as be­ing caused by air­borne lead from au­to­mo­tive emis­sions. All over the world, there were claims and coun­ter­claims. In Frank­furt, the gov­ern­ment de­cided to cut the level of lead in petrol from 0.4 to 0.15 grams per litre — a cut of about two thirds. Now, if lead was the prob­lem, that should have had an ef­fect on the com­mu­nity; if petrol was the cause of some of the lead ap­pear­ing in the com­mu­nity, and the amount was cut by two thirds, that must, as any sci­en­tist knows, have an ef­fect — oth­er­wise it had noth­ing to do with it.

The net re­sult was, “Since the changes ob­served are only of the or­der of sta­tis­ti­cal scat­ter [that is, you would never mea­sure any­thing and get the same re­sult twice], this in­di­cates that lead in petrol did not con­trib­ute to an up­take by in­ges­tion through sig­nif­i­cant de­po­si­tion on food and uten­sils, as has been sug­gested. If it had done, greater and con­tin­u­ing de­crease in blood lev­els in the com­mu­nity should have been ob­served”. In other words, they mea­sured the amount of lead in nearly 1000 peo­ple for five years and there was no change, de­spite the cut in lead lev­els in petrol!

Fur­ther, our stu­dents in Dunedin have not grasped the fact that the lead that comes out of car ex­hausts has been baked at 2000 to 3000 de­grees, like a house brick but so small that you need a mi­cro­scope to see it. It doesn’t get ab­sorbed through the lungs, and doesn’t even dis­solve in the di­luted hy­drochlo­ric acid of the stom­ach! Which would ex­plain why, af­ter the demise of leaded petrol as we knew it in New Zealand in the late 1990s, the lead lev­els in the air were mea­sured to be greater than when we ac­tu­ally had leaded petrol.

In ad­di­tion, there have been no known re­ported cases of lead poi­son­ing in New Zealand di­rectly at­trib­ut­able to tetraethyl lead in petrol. The cases of ac­tual lead poi­son­ing were at­trib­uted to leaded paint. One of the down­sides to ‘ do it your­self’ (DIY) home ren­o­va­tions was that when a DIYER sanded down old leaded paint with a power san­der, the paint dust was blown all around the neigh­bour­hood for us all to breathe. It’s hap­pen­ing here in Christchurch, and has been for the past six or so years since the quakes, thanks to earth­quake-dam­aged homes be­ing re­paired/de­mol­ished.

Seem­ingly, the stu­dents at the Uni­ver­sity of Otago ne­glected to ask their ‘sub­jects’ if they had ever chewed on their lead-painted toys when they were lit­tle kid­dies! That is/was the most com­mon source of in­gested lead in chil­dren — but hey, why let facts get in the way of a good story, right?

Rais­ing aware­ness

Hark­ing back to the 1990s, this scribe went to great lengths — pub­licly — to raise aware­ness, not about leaded petrol, but about what it was be­ing re­placed with, and the make-up of that con­coc­tion. With the ad­vent of ‘unleaded’ petrol, com­plete with its dan­ger­ous additives such as Toluene, etc., the big­gest threat was from ben­zene. In 1997, our own Min­istry of Health re­ported that ben­zene con­cen­tra­tions in the air were at a dan­ger­ously high level, and in fact were some 12 times higher than the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion lim­its. At the time, I stated in the lo­cal pa­per that, “We will now have as many as 65 ex­tra peo­ple dy­ing from leukaemia each year”. I also pub­licly asked that re­ports should not con­tain phrases such as, “It is thought”, “It is be­lieved”, and “It has been sug­gested” when de­scrib­ing per­ceived links, es­pe­cially in re­la­tion to schoolchil­dren.

Clearly, my pleas were missed by the stu­dents con­duct­ing this lat­est re­search. How were the sub­ject chil­dren cho­sen?* Were they the chil­dren of car en­thu­si­asts? Was any at­tempt made to as­cer­tain ex­actly how they man­aged to ingest the lead? I note that there were 1000 sub­jects — the same number as the Frank­furt study (al­beit they were adults), which con­cluded that the lead lev­els in air were NOT in­gested, could not be in­gested, and were noth­ing to do with leaded petrol!

The­sis

I’ve been to uni­ver­sity — and not just to eat my lunch! — and as part of my stud­ies I had to do a the­sis, so I know what is in­volved and the level of check­ing on any facts to which the writer might al­lude. Suf­fice it to say that there is a great ra­dio ad­ver­tise­ment on at the mo­ment: some­one asks a job ap­pli­cant; “What did you write your the­sis on?” The ap­pli­cant re­sponds: “I just grabbed a bit of pa­per and a pen and wrote un­til the pen ran out!” That about sums up what I think of any so-called re­search or study that re­lies on terms such as, ‘Could be’, ‘Ap­peared to be re­spon­si­ble’, ‘The long-term ef­fects are un­known’, and other such vague ref­er­ences, to es­tab­lish con­clu­sive find­ings that might — and gen­er­ally do — grab me­dia at­ten­tion. I mean, why bother? Greg Price Dip. FA (Di­ploma in Flower Ar­rang­ing!)

* The Dunedin study cov­ers 1037 peo­ple born be­tween April 1, 1972 and March 31, 1973 at Queen Mary Ma­ter­nity Cen­tre, Dunedin, and still liv­ing in the area three years later.

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