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Get the lead out

I drove to Denver the other day to run some springtime errands. As I was waiting at a stop light in Cherry Creek, I looked up and there setting at the light across from me was the quintessential dream car for those who spent their youth in the late ’50s and early ’60s. Yup, a fully restored cherry-red 1957 Chevy Bel-Air with its unique grille, “rubber bullets” front bumper, two-tone tail fins, white-wall tires, spinner hubcaps, and black vinyl top. For a second I could almost smell the interior and hear the West Side of Chicago, where I grew up. But my reverie was interrupted by a young woman crossing in front of me who had more body piercings than Rosanna Arquette in the movie “Pulp Fiction” to complement her spiked purple and silver hair. (Geez, maybe she was going to the Rockies game.)But before I criticize the young lady’s “with it” look, it occurred to me that had I actually been transported back in time. That young girl’s mother, or maybe even her grandmother (good grief), would have been sporting ratted hair piled up about 10 inches on her head, along with her “steady’s” class ring needing an inch of yarn, coated with pastel frost nail polish wrapped around it so it would fit her finger. While engaging in memory dominoes, I recalled pulling in to the friendly Esso gas station to put a tiger in my tank and telling the attendant to, “Fill it with ethyl.” But what exactly was “ethyl” and more importantly, was it any good for us back in the days of “Father Knows Best”? The proper name for that particular chemical compound was tetraethyl lead, or lead tetraethyl (chemist always like to mess with our heads), an additive that when put into gasoline significantly reduced engine knocking.The big oil companies chose to use the term “ethyl” because it sounded friendlier than “lead,” which the manufacturers knew was a neurotoxin. The oil industry knew full well that too much lead in any form introduced into the body damages the brain and the central nervous system, including blindness, insomnia, kidney failure, hearing loss, cancer, palsies, convulsions, hallucinations. Not a good thing by any standard.The main producer of tetraethyl lead was the Ethyl Gasoline Corp. (later shortened to the Ethyl Corp.), a joint venture among General Motors, Du Pont and Standard Oil of New Jersey. That tetraethyl lead was a dangerous additive was apparent to the industry almost immediately when over a dozen workers died and numerous others became violently ill during initial production. But even during the halcyon days of “Ozzie and Harriet,” denial by big corporations was fashionable. After workers at one plant developed irreversible delusions, a spokesman for the Ethyl Corporation blandly told reporters, “These men probably went insane because they worked too hard.” I’m not making this up.Nevertheless, the public was never made fully aware of the dangers of lead – whether in gasoline, paint, pesticides or toothpaste – because almost all of the studies on the subject were funded by manufacturers of lead additives.We now know that lead accumulates in the bones and the blood, which is what makes it so dangerous. Some 90 percent of the lead in our atmosphere came from automobile exhaust pipes, and it wasn’t until the introduction of the Clean Air Act in 1970, which eventually led to the removal of all lead in gasoline in 1986, was the problem addressed. It’s also interesting to note that since 1986 the lead levels in the blood of Americans have decreased by 80 percent. But because lead is forever, those of us alive today have lead levels in our blood about 600 times more than people did before the introduction of tetraethyl lead into gasoline.As for the Ethyl Corp., as recently as 2001 company spokespeopl contend that “research has failed to show that leaded gasoline posses any health threat to either humans or the environment.” What’s the adage? Tell a big enough lie often enough and people will come to believe it!Ah yes, the good old days. But to tell the truth, back then all my friends and I cared about was putting free tiger tails on the gas tank cap, peeling out and whistling at girls while cruising Harlem Avenue. And of course coming up with enough quarters to put that leaded tiger in the tank.Butch Mazzuca of Singletree, a Realtor, writes a weekly column for the Daily. He can be reached at bmazz68@earthlink.net Vail, Colorado


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