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This American Scientist’s War Against Leaded Petrol Literally Saved Mankind

Clair Cameron Patterson was an American geochemist who is best known for his near accurate estimation of Earth’s age at 4.55 billion years—a figure that hasn’t been refuted since its discovery.

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The Better India is partnering with An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power(2017), a film that documents former U.S. Vice President Al Agore’s quest to find out how human ingenuity and passion can tackle climate change. This article is part of a 4-part series of climate change heroes.

Did you know – There is a reason why the petrol we use in our vehicles is called ‘unleaded petrol’.

Early in the 20th century, petrol used to be mixed with an additive known as tetra ethyl lead by companies to reduce engine knock in internal combustion engines.

Though the intention was to make engines better, in the mid-fifties it was discovered that the increasing number of worker deaths in the petrol industry and the growing mental imbalance in infants was due to lead poisoning. And all that lead came from the petrol, or more accurately, the exhaust fumes of vehicles.

A chance discovery by a scientist and his single-handed war against a billion-dollar industry is the reason why our world is a much safer and less hazardous place to live.

Clair Cameron Patterson was an American geochemist who is best known for his near accurate estimation of Earth’s age at 4.55 billion years—a figure that hasn’t been refuted since its discovery.

Clair Cameron Patterson. Source: Facebook.

Born in Mitchellville, Iowa, Clair had spent significant years of adulthood tracing the geochemical evolution of Earth during his study. From examining meteorite samples to studying ocean surfaces, Clair started finding lead in anything and everything.

What was more disturbing was the fact that deep ocean water, which had a natural source of lead, contained up to 20 times less lead than surface water – which has no natural sources.

Determined to find the source of this contamination, Clair studied ice-core samples from Greenland taken in 1964 and from Antarctica in 1965 and found that there was a steady and dangerous elevation in the percentage of lead content in the atmosphere, which was triggered by none other than the lead-additive in petrol.

Breathing in the very same air, the lead particles very easily found their way into the bloodstreams of people who had no idea why their health was faltering.

Through his research paper, Contaminated and Natural Lead Environments of Man, which he published in 1965, Clair tried to draw the attention of common people to the lethal effects of lead in the environment due to industrial sources and the reason for its presence in the first place.

However, the lead-additive industry was by then a multi-million dollar industry with a powerful lobby. Clair’s war against the industry found no support. In fact, many research organisations broke off all contracts with the scientist and even went to the extent of excluding him from a National Research Council (NRC) panel on atmospheric lead contamination in 1971.


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His criticism also found a backlash from fellow scientists who found his accusations questioning their own research methodologies. Claire’s repeated advocacy against the use of additives in petrol found vehement opposition for a good two decades.

But he didn’t give up.

It was in 1978 that his voice finally found some platform when he was made part of another NRC panel that actually believed in what he was implying and resorted to work in the direction.

Expressing his opinions in a 78-page report, Clair made it very clear that immediate control measures had to be enacted towards not just petrol, but food containers, paint, glaze and water distribution systems as well, in order to subdue the extent of the damage.

Finally, in 1986, Clair’s efforts found success through the phase-out of lead from all standard, consumer, and automotive petrol in the country. According to reports, the lead content in the bloodstream of Americans significantly dropped by a whopping 80 per cent by late 1990s.

Today, we live in a world that does not know what leaded petrol is or of the harmful repercussions it could have posed for the generations to come if not detected on time.

All because of one man, who did not give up even when the whole world stood against him.

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Written by Lekshmi Priya S

Shuttling between existentialist views and Grey's Anatomy, Lekshmi has an insanely disturbing habit of binge reading. An ardent lover of animals and plants, she also specializes in cracking terribly sad jokes.