Heavy Metal Banned

Freakonomics, a work of non-fiction jointly written by a University of Chicago economist and a New York Times journalist became the surprise worldwide bestseller of 2005, having sold over 4 million copies to date in 35 different languages. Its unique selling proposition was the interpretation of  cultural issues through the lens of economics and statistics.

One of the more provocative ideas expounded in the book is that the drop in crime rate in the United States in the nineteen-nineties was the result of the legalisation of abortion in 1973. The theory was that unwanted children are more likely to become criminals in later life, and the Supreme Court’s controversial Roe vs. Wade ruling made the termination of unwanted pregnancies accessible and affordable, reducing the number of criminals in the crucial 18 to 25 age-group two decades later.

The theory was unpopular with urban police forces who had hitherto been basking in the glory of having cut down crime, and were quick to clutch at the straw that this may have been a coincidence since correlation did not establish causality. The authors addressed the morality of equating crime with poor family planning by pointing to Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime in Romania, where the reverse act had been played out. The Stalinist dictator had banned abortion in 1966, doubling the birth-rate within a year, which soon resulted in a surplus of under-educated youth who were unsuitable for the job market. Ironically, this same generation ended up as Ceausescu’s judge, jury and executioner after the fall of communism in 1989.

Recent research has introduced one more contender for the title of crime-fighter in the United States. The new hypothesis claims that exposure to tetraethyl-lead (TEL), an additive used in petrol until the nineteen-seventies, results in juvenile delinquencies. Neurological studies have shown that the exposure to lead and other heavy metals have a permanent effect on intelligence and behaviour— impairing judgement and inhibiting control. Violent crime rates between the 1960s and 1990s followed the same pattern as the rise and fall of leaded gasoline consumption, except being offset by about twenty-three years.

Early in the twentieth-century, General Motors (GM) was on the hunt for  a chemical that could prevent knocking or pinging in internal combustion engines. Although their research laboratory, headed by Charles Kettering, had discovered that ethyl alcohol or ethanol possessed these properties, this was intentionally overlooked as its commercial potential was limited. Instead in 1922, Kettering  approached Alfred Sloan, who was to become the company president the following year, with the discovery of TEL which was patentable and could bring them profit with every litre of petrol sold by any gas station in the country.

Despite knowledge of the deadliness of TEL, GM’s management decided to market it under the benign sounding name of “Ethyl”, a red-coloured fluid that would need to be added to petrol in a ratio of 1:1000. Over the years, the Ethyl cartel would repeatedly cover-up the deaths of workers in their plants from lead exposure, and even stage public relations meetings to hide the truth.

By the time the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency outlawed lead as an additive, millions of tonnes of TEL had already been burned in gasoline, much of which remains in the soil, air and water around us.

Ultimately this essay is not just about lead pollution, since time alone will prove if the theory linking TEL and crime can withstand the targeted arrows of criticism and cross-examination. Hidden beneath the surface is a darker tale of corporate greed and unbridled capitalism, a misadventure that has profitably polluted the world and forced a tragedy on generations to come. Two of the key perpetrators of this crime, Sloan and Kettering, went on to offer their patronage to a cancer research hospital in New York City (which bears their name today), perhaps to atone for their complicity in the poisoning of the planet.

Take another deeper breath,
Inhale invisible death.
Pollution fills the land and sky,
Forever you justify.
Take a deeper look and see,
Nothing's left to future seeds.
Icicles melt in the blood,
Ashes where there once was wood.

Machine Head, Elegy