Don't Get The Lead OutKevin Kelly
They all got out: DuPont, Ethyl, and Nalco. None wanted to continue making lead additives in the face of mounting worldwide efforts to stamp out their use in gasoline. The latest: On Apr. 28, the U.N. Commission on Sustainable Development called on all nations to reduce their use of leaded gas or phase it out entirely.
Then there's Great Lakes Chemical Corp., based in West Lafayette, Ind. The company is fighting a controversial rear-guard action to slow the demise
of leaded gasoline. Why? Octel Associates Ltd., a British company that
is 89% owned by Great Lakes, makes the tetraethyl lead used to boost octane in gas. Last year, Octel accounted for 60% of Great Lakes' $405 million operating profit and 26% of its $2 billion in sales.
BRINGING REASON. To try to lengthen lead's lifetime, Octel is disputing the chemical's toxicity. In New Zealand, the company has run ads that compare lead to "naturally occurring" substances such as alcohol, sugar, and salt. And Octel argues that unleaded gasoline may be worse for human health than leaded. "They are completely misleading," says Princeton University environmental researcher Valerie Thomas.
Studies have linked high concentrations of lead in the body with problems ranging from high blood pressure to lowering the IQ of children. The U.S. began phasing out leaded gas in the early 1970s. Japan, Sweden, Brazil, and several other countries already have total bans. Leaded gas remains in use in much of the developing world, from Turkey to China. Nonetheless, Great Lakes thinks the anti-lead campaign is moving too fast. Says Donald A. Hall, a member of Octel's management board: "We're trying to bring reason to the debate."
Hall argues that if refiners phase out lead too quickly, they're apt to use benzene instead to boost octane. And benzene, released into the environment, can pose a cancer risk. It's possible to increase octane without using much benzene, but it costs more. What's more, Hall says, the company has run two studies that fail to correlate falling blood lead levels and the decline of lead in gas.
But Harvard University School of Public Health Professor Joel Schwartz says that the correlation between lead in blood and lead in gas is ironclad. As for the cost, international agencies like the World Bank believe that obtaining loans to upgrade refineries won't be a problem. Loan payments might be financed by a tax on leaded gasoline.
Tetraethyl lead sales by volume are declining by some 10% per year. So Great Lakes is using the enormous profits thrown off by the tetraethyl lead business to spend up to $200 million annually on acquisitions to prepare for the post-lead world. Still, with big earnings at stake, don't expect the company to back down any time soon.