Reporting on pedestrian life in the D.C. area

Metro history: D.C.'s cars and streets once poisoned us with lead

January 4, 2012 - 04:45 PM
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Remember the days of leaded gas. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

No one wants to believe the ground beneath our very feet is dangerous. No one wants to think of the ground at all, really. We look to the ground if there are bumps or holes or other potential dangers. But what we want is a smooth pedestrian experience that allows for a healthy, active stroll, with zero hindrance. 

But the ground in Washington, D.C. once held far more insidious dangers, one magazine article will reveal to you, although it wasn't really the ground that created the danger as cars. Our city was, in fact, monstrous. It poised pedestrians. "Inch for inch, Washington has more automobiles than any other city," Mother Jones magazine declared in June of 1977. "And about this time of year, it begins to show."

How so? The car exhaust collects and gets in the sidewalk, the magazine writer alleges, and a "thick yellow fog" that clouds the nation's capital, settled on the curbs, sidewalks, and streets. Pedestrians beware. Mother Jones dramatically notes that it's often even more "toxic" around government buildings and found 4,370 parts per million of lead on the south side of the White House.

Yes, you read that right. Lead. Lead was the true historical danger of our automobiles. U.S. auto companies once created gas full of the stuff, and its effects are every bit as damaging as you associate with lead paint, water, and anything else tainted.

D.C. is still packed with an unhealthy share of cars but this article is three and a half decades ago. Is the purported lead problem better? In the late '70s, Mother Jones points to the District as the worst city in the country. Auto makers first began integrating lead in the early decades of the 20th century.

The EPA provides a terrific history from 1985 of how lead was part of our transportation history: December 1921, three General Motors engineers -- Charles Kettering, Thomas Midgeley, and Thomas Boyd -- reported tremendous success with their first test of tetraethyl lead. Through the Ethyl corporation, then a GM subsidiary, GM quickly began touting this lead compound as the virtual savior of the American automobile industry.

The discovery was indeed extremely important. It paved the way for the development of the high-power, high-compression internal combustion engines that were to win World War II and dominate the U.S. automotive industry until the early 1970s.

Unfortunately, the use of tetraethyl lead created almost as many problems as it solved. The first danger sign was the mysterious illness that forced Thomas Midgeley to spend weeks convalescing in the winter of 1923. Midgeley had been experimenting rather recklessly with the various methods of manufacturing tetraethyl lead, and he did not at first realize just how dangerous the substance was in its concentrated liquid state.

The deadliness of tetraethyl lead was sadly confirmed in the summer of 1924. Workers engaged in producing the additive fell sick and died at several refineries in New Jersey and Ohio. Banner headlines greeted each new fatality until a total of 15 workers had lost their lives -- and their minds.

Despite these troubling problems, the EPA didn't issue regulations to remove lead from our gas until 1973 and even then, the move called for "gradual" reduction and didn't begin until 1975. By the mid-'80s, the EPA was looking toward a total ban on lead in gas but it took another decade before the agency could type the following lines:

Leaded gasoline will no longer be available in the United States after December 31, 1995. The Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 mandate the elimination of lead from all U.S. motor fuel by January 1, 1996. This represents the final step in a gradual reduction of lead in gasoline since the early 1970s ... Lead is extremely toxic ... Airborne lead concentrations throughout the country have decreased 89 percent since 1984, directly due to the phaseout of leaded gasoline...

Lead remained a problem in housing paint, water, and other dimensions of D.C. life for years after the Mother Jones article, however, well after the transportation-based lead ceased to be the threat it was. One 2011 study on recent, positive efforts our city has made refers to the "serious, documented problems with lead poisoning" that we've experienced and a history of "constant bad press" on the topic.

The non-profit Leadsafe D.C. observes the following:

If so, it is almost certain that your home contains lead and it may be poisoning you or your child. Lead poisoning in Washington, D.C. remains one of the most dangerous environmental threats to children, despite the fact that it is completely preventable. Census data from 2005 estimate that 91% of housing in the District of Columbia was built prior to 1980. The use of lead in paint was banned in 1978 which suggests that many of these homes may contain lead-based paint and/or lead dust hazards. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that as of 2005 about 47, 719 children in the United States had an elevated blood lead level (= 10 µg/dL).

How has lead hurt human life in the last century? Quantifying the damage seems impossible. Read the 1977 Mother Jones article here and more pieces of Metro history here.

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