I was fairly heartened by the CDC's new report on the burden of toxic chemicals found in the bodies of randomly sampled American citizens. Here's the crucial point:
Children's lead levels, associated with brain and development problems, have decreased significantly. In the early 1990s 4.4% of kids under age 5 had elevated lead levels. Today's report, which covers 1999 to 2002, found only 1.6% did.The decrease is largely due to regulatory and clean-up efforts, of course. For decades, one of the primary sources of lead exposure was the organometallic compound tetraethyl lead, which was used as an anti-knock additive. How TEL got into gasoline is a story in itself; despite the medical consensus on the hazards of lead in general and organic lead in particular, the industry successfully painted the issue as one of "progress." Lead was the guardian of America's health, and TEL was "an apparent gift from God." The epidemic of hallucinations and delerium among TEL workers was handled with typical aplomb by Standard Oil's chief chemist, who said "These men probably went insane because they worked too hard."
In the ensuing years, we put about 7 million metric tons of lead into our gasoline. By 1982, leaded gasoline accounted for almost 90 percent of lead in the atmosphere. However, as we phased TEL out, blood lead levels dropped dramatically within a remarkably short period of time. If the current decrease doesn't seem like much, bear in mind that between 1976 and 1991, the incidence of elevated blood lead levels dropped from 77.8 percent to 4.4 percent.
A similar regulatory and clean-up effort for mercury could have equally dramatic results, which is why efforts like this are well worth supporting:
A group of 32 mostly Democratic senators acted last week to force a floor vote on a resolution that would overturn an EPA rule establishing a cap-and-trade program to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced the resolution last month under a 1995 law that allows Congress to overturn final agency rules with a majority vote.