Merchants Of Doom

Environmental Scares

Lead Is Indeed Scary, But...

Why was leaded gasoline "invented"? The answer may surprise you:

Three engineers working for General Motors in Dayton, Ohio, found that tiny amounts of lead added to petrol, in the form of a highly-toxic liquid compound, lead tetraethyl, had a miraculous effect on engine efficiency. By delaying ignition it eliminated the juddering known as ‘knock’ and allowed higher compression ratios, thus making significant savings on fuel, of 5 per cent or more. It was quickly adopted by oil companies as a routine additive to petrol.

From the mid- 1930s on the amount of lead showing up in blood in the USA began steadily dropping at a consistent rate of around 4 per cent a year, from 30 micrograms per decilitre in 1935 to 15 by 1970 (acute toxicity was assessed at 70 or more). The odd thing was that this downward curve remained remarkably constant through the 25 years after the war, during a time when the quantities of lead added to petrol rose by more than eight times.

Considerable coverage was given to a study of lead levels in the blood of local schoolchildren, [...] because it had confirmed a close relationship between high lead levels and mental impairment, inability to concentrate, even a tendency to aggression. Markedly less notice, however, was paid to its conclusion that the cause of the poisoning appeared to lie almost entirely in lead from water pipes and paint. ‘Lead from petrol fumes’, the researchers were quoted as finding, ‘barely contributed’.

And yet, the campaign to eliminate leaded gasoline was in full swing, even going as far as being tacked on to international aid covenants: "World Bank [...] made loans to Third World countries, such as Indonesia, conditional on their agreeing to phase out the use of lead in petrol".1 As usual, bad policy decisions impose actual costs on the economy, both direct and indirect:

The new rules would cost ‘consumers’ an additional £4.8 billion a year, raise the average cost of a car by up to £600 and force oil companies into £70 billion-worth of new investment. One cost, however, the Commission failed to include. To make up for the engine efficiency lost by the elimination of lead, Europe’s vehicles would now need to consume considerably more fuel (5 per cent or more), significantly increasing their output of CO2. Unleaded petrol also required greater use of crude oil in the refining process. Studies carried out for the Commission estimated the additional greenhouse gas emissions generated in the EU as a result of the switch to unleaded petrol at 15–17 million tonnes a year.

Source: Christopher Booker and Richard North. Scared to Death: From BSE to Global Warming: Why Scares are Costing Us the Earth. United Kingdom, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. [x]

Don't misunderstand, lead is extremely dangerous, just not in gasoline or electronic soldering:

"The knowledge that lead can be damaging to human health dates back to Roman times. [...] Some historians have even suggested that wholesale lead poisoning, induced by the Romans’ plumbing methods, was a significant factor in the decay of the Roman empire (our word ‘plumbing’ derives from plumbum, the Latin for lead). [...] Acute exposure to lead, chiefly from ingestion, can cause weakness, anaemia, and damage to the brain, inducing hallucinations, blindness and even death".1

Besides gasoline, lead is also found in electronics. Similarly, the fear is overblown there too:

A vital ingredient in all this electronic equipment, because of its uniquely valuable properties, was lead: notably in the solder used in circuit boards, and in the glass used for safety reasons in the cathode ray tubes behind both computer monitor and television screens (the largest of these may contain as much as four pounds of lead, as a protection against harmful X-rays). In due course, almost all this lead would be disposed of by dumping it into landfill sites as waste. [...] Recycling the glass in CRTs was very expensive. [You have] to take into account the huge social and environmental price paid for shipping large quantities of CRTs and other electronic equipment overseas to countries such as China, to be ‘recycled’ in a manner which was ‘both dangerous to the workers and results in widespread environmental pollution’.

Where lab tests had shown lead leachate from computer monitors to average 413 milligrams per litre, the real-life results averaged only 4.1 mg, less than 1 per cent of the lab figure. The results for leachate from the lead solder in computer circuit boards were very similar. The EPA’s standard test showed 162 mg, whereas the actual figure was 2.2 mg, nearly 100 times smaller. [...] At every step along the way, the report found, the environmental and health impacts of the materials likely to be used as a substitute compared negatively with those of lead. Because their melting point was invariably much higher than that of lead, they required significantly more energy consumption (giving off more CO2 emissions).

Apart from their financial cost, it was also generally recognized that the new materials were not as reliable as lead. The electronic equipment using them would probably be less durable and would break down more often (which was why the EU directive exempted military uses from its ban).

Source: Christopher Booker and Richard North. Scared to Death: From BSE to Global Warming: Why Scares are Costing Us the Earth. United Kingdom, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. [x]

Climate Alarmism

The dangers of climate change may also be exaggerated, though it's hard to prove either way at this juncture. But overhyping the impact could backfire in the long-run.

This defeatist refrain [...] explicitly calls into question humanity’s capacity to avert the destructive consequences of the threats it faces. [...] They demand that we ring the alarm bells while implying that there is very little that can be done to avert the dangers that lie ahead.

Source: Frank Furedi. How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the Twenty-First Century. United Kingdom, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018. [x]


1: Christopher Booker and Richard North. Scared to Death: From BSE to Global Warming: Why Scares are Costing Us the Earth. United Kingdom, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020. [x]