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New Jersey’s Notorious Lead Legacy

From Dupont’s “House of Butterflies” to GM’s rusted car engines


Gov. Christie held a press conference on the lead issue today, where he tried to shift the focus away from schools and drinking water risks, and instead talk about the legacy of lead paint and lead abatement programs for housing.

He announced a plan to divert $10 million in existing budget money to expand the residential lead abatement program. He didn’t say what program would be cut $10 million to pay for it. And he didn’t say anything about where the OLS estimated $10 million currently being collected from a 50 cent per can paint tax is going. So the Gov. may have diverted the existing $10 million in revenue to what he is calling a $10 million “increase”. Chutzpa, no?

In a sickening display of “bi-partisanship”, Senator Jeff Van Drew (D) – of Pinelands pipeline fame – sat in the front row like a loyal lapdog and was praised by Christie for his “support”. Christie also praised other Democratic leaders, so I really hope Van Drew was not signaling Democratic surrender.

All I heard from the Governor was no new money, no new taxes, no state mandate – state pay, and the risks have been exaggerated.

I also heard a contradictory claim that “don’t worry, we’re on top of it”, but at the same time, the Gov. said “we really don’t know what the problem is” or what solutions are most cost effective, so we should not over-react and basically do nothing until experts give us advice.

EPA Administrator McCarthy’s recent testimony to Congress on the Flint disaster accused State officials in Michigan of similar “slow walk” tactics. She also complained that EPA was “misled and strong armed”. Hmmmm…. (Gov. Christie would never do that! And he would never “strong arm” EPA, would he? (even though he bragged about and anticipated doing that, as I wrote:

Christie vowed to fight with the Obama EPA over policy, revealing a radical state’s right’s approach to federal oversight:

After a few perfunctory superficial questions on lead, the media turned the event into a ranting opportunity for the Gov. about Atlantic City bankruptcy.

But because the Governor put a historical perspective on the table, here’s some of  NJ’s lead legacy you won’t read in the news coverage.

Much has been written about the history of lead, which has been called “the mother of all industrial poisons”, so I will just very briefly mention 1 glaring irony in the news recently and 3 specific New Jersey episodes in this ugly history.

General Motors – A Legacy of Caring

Scientists at General Motors (GM) invented tetraethyl lead as a gasoline additive in 1922.

In an amazing historical irony, 93 years later, it was GM that was one of the first to discover the lead problem in the water of Flint Michigan.

But, just like the reckless disregard GM showed for public health back in 1922, they repeated that exact same corporate irresponsibility in Flint.

GM found that Flint’s water was so corrosive that it was destroying their car engines. They switched their water supply and closed the drinking water fountains in their facilities.

But they didn’t warn the people of Flint or the elected officials or State of Federal regulators of the hazard of Flint water that was so corrosive that it was destroying car engines.

Imagine that: GM cares more about the health of car engines than of people. Same as in 1922.

Standard Oil and Dupont – A Legacy of Murder

The history of the toxicology of many chemicals begins with the workers, who frequently are the guinea pigs and the first to suffer poisoning and sickness and death from chemical exposure.

Lead has been known to be toxic since the Roman Empire, when miners strapped animal bladders over their mouths to avoid inhaling it. Ben Franklin wrote about “the mischievous effect” from lead he experienced as a printer. Charles Dickens wrote about women who worked in lead factories and suffered lead poisoning in 1861. (1)

But tetraethyl lead was an oily liquid and thus far more “bioavailable” and far more toxic than exposure to lead in paints and pigment and mines.

Massive leaded gas production and distribution by millions of internal combustion engines magnified the public health risks of lead by orders of magnitude.

Science and public health be damned, New Jersey corporations lead the way in deadly tetraethyl lead production.

In 1924, at a Standard Oil tetraethyl lead manufacturing plant in Elizabeth NJ, 5 of 49 exposed workers DIED of lead poisoning, while 35 other workers suffered severe dementia and neurological effects of lead poisoning and spent the rest of their lives in insane asylums.

Dupont’s Chambersworks facility in Deepwater NJ along the Delaware River was one of the largest manufacturing plants for tetraethyl lead. The lead unit was known as “The House of Butterflies”.

That’s the same plant where 100% (no typo) of workers manufacturing dye chemicals developed bladder cancer.

The Dupont Chambersworks plant also saw workers deaths – and during a two year period 300 non-fatal cases of lead poisoning.

NJ’s Role in a Legacy of Corporate Scientific Fraud and PR Spin

Scientists warned of these long known worker and public health risks and desperately tried to prevent the introduction of lead as a gasoline additive.

But – similar to today – scientists personally were attacked and their science discredited by powerful propaganda campaigns by greedy corporate profiteers and their puppets in government, who elevated corporate profits over worker and public health protections.

NJ has a part of the ugly legacy as well.

One of the groundbreaking scientific studies that triggered public outrage and led to real regulatory efforts to ban and phase out lead was conducted by a scientist named Herbert Needleman.

That study of 2,500 children documented impaired mental development in children at very low exposures and that IQ reductions, attention deficits, and violent behaviors were strongly correlated to blood lead levels at far lower levels than previously thought.

Needleman was falsely attacked and accused of scientific fraud and misconduct by an industry smear campaign. This was the same corporate PR strategy for attacking today’s climate scientists and their climate science.

Ironically – and here’s the Jersey link you’ve been waiting for – it turns out that Mr. Needleman, back in the 1950’s during his medical school days, worked as a day laborer in the Dupont Chambersworks plant.

That’s where he first observed that a group of older workers, known by other workers to have survived “the House of Butterflies”, had mental impairment.

Another notorious Jersey lead legacy.

And I haven’t even mentioned the lead smelters and battery manufactures and other industrial facilities that poisoned thousands of acres of land with toxic lead – the NL Lead and ASARCO toxic sites come to mind – or the current ongoing lead emission sources, like garbage incinerators and coal power plants.

Why no media focus on any of that?

[Update 4/6/16: Surprise, surprise! EPA just issued a press release naming former Kil-Tone Company a lead contaminated site in Vineland, NJ a new Superfund site- curious timing, as the site was proposed for NPL listing 8 months ago, back in September 2015.]

(and I have a Trenton lead residential exposure issue related to the Martin Luther King Jr. School debacle the illustrates a big part of the problem I will write about soon if any media are interested in local stories.)

[(1) Sources:

Doubt Is Their Product – How Industry’s Assault On Science Threatens Your Health” (David Michaels,2008)

“Trust Us, We’re Experts” (Rampton and Stauber, 2001)

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