Monday, May 19, 2008

Clair Patterson

I had never heard of Clair C. Patterson until I recently read of him in "A Natural History of Time" by Pascal Richet. M. Richet's very enjoyable book recounts Western man's attempts to date the earth, from the endless time theories of the Greeks, through the interpretation of Biblical tales, to the present. As of now, the current word is that the earth is 4.55 billion years old, and it was Clair Patterson that did that dating fifty years ago.

While doing his research, Patterson also discovered something else, that mankind was poisoning itself with lead. Much of the credit for eliminating lead in gasoline (and elsewhere) goes to him. The following is from "A Short History of Nearly Everything", by Bill Bryson:

It would prove to be a hellish campaign. Ethyl was a powerful global corporation with many friends in high places. (Among its directors have been Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell and Gilbert Grosvenor of the National Geographic Society.) Patterson suddenly found research funding withdrawn or difficult to acquire. The American Petroleum Institute canceled a research contract with him, as did the United States Public Health Service, a supposedly neutral government institution.

As Patterson increasingly became a liability to his institution, the school trustees were repeatedly pressed by lead industry officials to shut him up or let him go. According to Jamie Lincoln Kitman, writing in The Nation in 2000, Ethyl executives allegedly offered to endow a chair at Caltech “if Patterson was sent packing.” Absurdly, he was excluded from a 1971 National Research Council panel appointed to investigate the dangers of atmospheric lead poisoning even though he was by now unquestionably the leading expert on atmospheric lead.

To his great credit, Patterson never wavered or buckled. Eventually his efforts led to the introduction of the Clean Air Act of 1970 and finally to the removal from sale of all leaded gasoline in the United States in 1986. Almost immediately lead levels in the blood of Americans fell by 80 percent. But because lead is forever, those of us alive today have about 625 times more lead in our blood than people did a century ago. The amount of lead in the atmosphere also continues to grow, quite legally, by about a hundred thousand metric tons a year, mostly from mining, smelting, and industrial activities. The United States also banned lead in indoor paint, “forty-four years after most of Europe,” as McGrayne notes. Remarkably, considering its startling toxicity, lead solder was not removed from American food containers until 1993.

But no good deed stands unchallenged by the Bush administration:
The Bush administration is considering doing away with health standards that cut lead from gasoline, widely regarded as one of the nation's biggest clean-air accomplishments.

The Environmental Protection Agency said this week that revoking those standards might be justified "given the significantly changed circumstances since lead was listed in 1976" as an air pollutant, claiming that concentrations of lead in the air have dropped more than 90 percent in the past 2 1/2 decades. Battery makers, lead smelters, refiners all have lobbied the administration to do away with the Clean Air Act limits.
Later, Patterson denounced the hold of utilitarianism in science. As David Neiwert reports, the utilitarians will leave no one behind in their effort to use science for power and profit, no matter what the cost:
Bush's FDA has just announced that it is going to scrap American participation in the Declaration of Helsinki -- the major international accord on ethical principles guiding physicians and other participants in medical research on human subjects. This isn't a decision involving mere medical bureaucracy -- it in fact clears the way for ethics-free drug testing, especially beyond American borders, and it means people will die, sometimes horribly.
Clair Patterson died in 1995. The world desperately needs more scientists who think and act as he did.
(h/t Later On for links to some of this material)


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