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Getting the Lead Out Is Precisely What Lead Industry Fears

July 22, 1990

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Ask somebody to name two uses for lead and you’re likely to get an out-of- date answer such as paint or gasoline.

That’s bad news for the lead industry, which has been struggling to devise ways to educate people about beneficial uses of the heavy metal to help counter the perception that it is hazardous. Many producers fear that lead’s negative image will result in tighter regulation and curtailed use.

″Simply put, we must let people know why lead is important in their everyday lives,″ said Jeffrey Zelms, chairman of the Lead Industry Association and president of St. Louis-based Doe Run, the nation’s largest lead producer.

″The industry has got to accept the fact that we are here by public consent. If that public consent is lost, then you’re not going to be here,″ Zelms said.

The association has hired a public relations firm to distribute information about lead. Some members have promoted lead by purchasing advertisements. Zelms said his company has ″people who’ll go to talk to kindergarten classes and people who’ll go talk to college classes.″

For years, the lead industry operated with little thought to public relations. The public formed perceptions based largely on ominous press reports about lead’s harmful effects.

One result was legislation introduced in Congress by Sen. Harry Reid, D.- Nev., that is especially troubling for the lead industry.

Karen Florini, senior attorney for the Environmental Defense Fund, which backs the legislation, said the bill would restrict uses of lead with high potential for human exposure.

Those uses could include paint, solder, toys and construction materials such as roofing, siding and soundproofing.

″Much of the environment is seriously contaminated with lead already,″ Florini said. ″These bills are trying to ensure that we’re not making a bad problem worse.″

That view is frightening to lead producers, said Robert Muth, vice president of government and public affairs for Asarco Inc., a New York-based lead producer. ″In the long run it could be very damaging not only to the industry, but to the advance of science and industry.″

Muth said public health concerns unfairly center on paint and gasoline, now largely discontinued uses of lead.

″But somehow or another that kind of slops over into a broadsided attack on all uses, both known and unknown,″ Muth said.

Five years ago, Doe Run decided to ″come out of the closet″ and confront some of the perceptions about lead, Zelms said. But first, the company had to find out what people knew. It found they didn’t know much.

For example, a random poll of 800 people in Missouri, which provides more than 90 percent of the lead mined in the country, showed more than half could name only paint and gasoline as uses for lead, Zelms said.

Today, three-quarters of the lead mined in this country is used for car batteries.

It’s also used to shield people from radioactivity emitted from televisions, computer screens, dental X-rays, radiation therapy and nuclear power plants. Lead can also be found in products ranging from electronics solder to telephone cable coverings.

The Japanese have begun using lead in building foundations to absorb earthquake shock. Studies have shown that a lead liner in foundations could protect homes from naturally occurring radon gas.

A giant lead-acid battery already is in use at an electrical substation in Chino, Calif., for ″load leveling.″ The battery provides enough additional power during peak demand to eliminate the need for extra generators or plants.

Electric cars powered by lead-acid batteries could become an alternative to the gasoline car. General Motors Corp. announced earlier this year that its ″Impact″ electric car could be on the market by the middle of the decade.

Nonetheless, lead lobbyists say, most news about lead is bad. Zelms said the public is ″bombarded with the information that it is not being produced and utilized in an environmentally safe way.″

Earlier this year, for example, the Environmental Defense Fund released a report detailing ″a nationwide epidemic of low-level lead poisoning″ in children, partly a legacy of lead-based paint.

Even though such paint has not been sold for more than 10 years, it’s still the primary cause of lead poisoning to children between the ages of 6 months and 6 years, the group said. Especially vulnerable are children in inner- cities, where older housing still contains leaded paint.

″Lead’s toxic effects have caused millions of children to suffer permanent neurological damage,″ Ellen Silbergeld, a senior toxicologist with the group said. ″We have built up an accumulation of lead from past uses that will not go away.″

The Environmental Protection Agency is considering more stringent regulations on the amount of lead allowed in drinking water and air.

While lead concentrations in the air have decreased dramatically as leaded gasoline has been phased out over the last 15 years, new health information suggests that adverse health effects can occur at lower levels than originally thought, said John Haines, an EPA official in the air quality planning and standards office.

The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta also is considering whether to redefine what constitutes dangerous lead levels in children.

High levels of lead in blood can affect the mental and physical development of fetuses and children, Haines said. In adults, it can cause anemia and disrupt kidney functions. Studies also have shown associations between blood lead levels and high blood pressure in middle-aged men.

The Lead Industry Association and the EPA are holding informational meetings this summer to evaluate lead uses and hazards.

″The products we make are extremely beneficial,″ Zelms said. ″Our society would change dramatically if they were excluded.″

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