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When lead was added to petrol it made cars more powerful and was, its advocates said, a “gift”. But lead is a gift which poisons people; something known as long ago as Roman times

In the 1920s lead was added to petrol. It made cars more powerful and was, according to its advocates, a “gift”. But lead is a gift which poisons people; something figured out as long ago as Roman times. There’s some evidence that as countries get richer, they tend initially to get dirtier and later clean up. Economists call this the “environmental Kuznets curve”. It took the United States until the 1970s to tax lead in petrol, then finally ban it, as the country moved down the far side of the environmental Kuznets curve. But as Tim Harford explains in this astonishing story, the consequences of the Kuznets curve aren’t always only economic.

Producer: Ben Crighton
Editors: Richard Knight and Richard Vadon

(Image: Petrol Nozzle, Credit: Khaled Desouki/AFP/Getty Images)

Available now

9 minutes

Last on

Mon 10 Jul 2017 03:50GMT

Sources and related links

Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner - Deceit and Denial: The deadly politics of industrial pollution, University of California Press, 2013

William J. (Bill) Kovarik, Ph.D. dissertation - The Ethyl controversy: How the news media set the agenda for a public health controversy over leaded gasoline, 1924-1926, University of Maryland

Kassia St Clair - The Secret Lives of Colour, John Murray, 2016

Jessica Wolpaw Reyes - Environmental policy as social policy? The impact of childhood lead exposure on crime, Working paper 13097, National Bureau of Economic Research, Cambridge, MA, 2007

Looney gas and lead poisoning: A short, sad history

House of Butterflies

Lead poisoning and Rome

The secret history of lead

Lead exposure and violent crime in the early twentieth century

Preventing lead poisoning in young children: Chapter 2


  • Sat 8 Jul 2017 02:50GMT
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  • Mon 10 Jul 2017 03:50GMT