Chemistry is a funny thing – chemists give us medication that save our lives and they poison us at the same time by introducing for instance lead in the air that we breathe, or they introduce stuff called CFC that allows us to fight bad odor from sweat, or have a neat hair-do but at the same time destroys the ozone layer, so needed for us to stay alive.
Clair Patterson was a geochemist determined to date the birth of the planet Earth, and he was a man despite the name. Apparently his estimate of our planet’s age was the closest to the real one for over 50 years. This happened in 1953. For those estimations he had to study the behavior of various chemical elements, among others – the lead.
By the time Patterson determined the age of the earth he was very knowledgeable in the behavior of lead and its effect on human body and he turned his knowledge and talent towards this issue. He discovered that what was known about these effects was just wrong or misleading. This had a very clear explanation though- for decades every study of lead had been funded by the manufacturers using this element in their products. The main player here was the Ethyl Corporation.
In one of such studies the volunteers had to breathe in the elevated quantity of lead for certain period, their urine and feces being tested regularly. The thing is that lead stays in blood and bones, so those tests were useless. Eventually based on this experiment it was determined that lead is safe for us.
And then we got lead in everything around us – gasoline, wall paint, tin cans, water containers.
Patterson quickly determined that there is a lot lead in the atmosphere and 90 per-cent of it came from automobile exhaust pipes. How he determined it it’s a long story but his tests proved that there was almost no lead in the atmosphere before 1923, the year when this element was added to gasoline. He now made it the quest of his life to get lead taken out of gasoline.
Ethyl Corporation which used to produce leaded gasoline, became the powerful rival to Patterson, they had many friends in right places. Patterson was constantly pressured and became a serious liability to every institution he worked for. The funding was hard to find for his research and not many places wanted to work with him. In fact Ethyl Corporation did it’s best to keep Patterson away from his research.
To his great credit despite everything Patterson never gave up and his efforts eventually led to the Clean Air Ac of 1970 and only in 1986 lead was removed from the gasoline in the US. Almost immediately lead levels in the blood of Americans fell by 80%. But because lead almost never goes away, apparently we have 625 times more lead in our blood than people did before the cars were invented and it will stay with us until we die.
You would think that after 80-ies we should have known how toxic lead is but it was removed from food containers only in 1993.
Clair Patterson died in 1995. He did not gain much fame, even though he was the greatest geologist of all times, Most geology text books don’t even mention him. He has not received a Nobel Prize for his work, because geologists never do. And some scientific periodic editions did not even bother to check, just assumed he was a woman.
But this person probably saved not just people, not even a big number of people, but the whole new generations of the mankind.
Bill Bryson’s book “A Short History of Nearly Everything” is a really good read on this and on… well “nearly everything”