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Damage for decades – Parshat Shelach

The spies' bad report took the Israelites 40 years to walk out of their system, much the way leaded gas did so much harm that it took years to reduce its impact
Springs, NY General Store NRHP site - vintage gas pumps. (CC BY-SA, CaptJayRuffins / Wikimedia Commons)
Springs, NY General Store NRHP site - vintage gas pumps. (CC BY-SA, CaptJayRuffins / Wikimedia Commons)

During the 1990s, there was a dramatic reduction in crime rates in New York City. Violent crime dropped by more than 56 percent and property crimes fell by 65%. We all remember Rudi Giuliani, who was mayor at the time, claiming this was a result of his “broken windows” policy which strictly enforced even the most minor crimes. “Obviously murder and graffiti are two vastly different crimes,” Giuliani said in a 1998 interview, “But they are part of the same continuum, and a climate that tolerates one is more likely to tolerate the other.”

However, there are many issues with the claim that stricter policing was responsible for the reduction in crime. There are several other theories to explain what happened both in New York and the rest of the country, because there was a national drop in crime.

Some say it was connected to the economic boom of the 1990s – there was a huge decrease in the national unemployment rate during that decade. The authors of Freakonomics argue that Roe v. Wade, which legalized abortion, caused the reduction of crime 20 years later. Others claim that the decline in the crack cocaine epidemic led to the drop in crime.

I want to discuss a different theory, which may have had an impact on national crime rates in the 1990s. The switch from leaded to unleaded fuel in the 1970s and 1980s. Even if this theory cannot be proven, there is no question that removing lead from petrol had an incredibly positive effect on children born into a world with less lead. Or to put it another way, the damage caused by adding lead to gas did untold damage to an entire generation. Epidemiologists found that elevated blood levels are associated with lower IQ and increased rates of behavioral disturbance.

In the 1920s car manufacturers were looking for ways to remove the engine “knock.” Thomas Midgley Jr. came up with the solution. He figured out that adding tetraethyl lead would make the internal combustion engines more efficient. All the major car manufacturers promoted leaded fuel as the solution to engine problems and spent a lot of time and effort covering up the dangers associated with the toxicity of lead. Several people died at the Dayton, Ohio plant where the tetraethyl lead was first manufactured. A second plant in New Jersey was closed a few months after opening following deaths of five workers while other staff members suffered from hallucinations and insanity.

Midgley himself stood in front of reporters on October 30, 1924, to demonstrate the safety of the lead additive. He poured lead over his hands, placed a bottle of it under his nose and inhaled deeply and claimed he could do this every day without any problems. However, shortly afterwards Midgley was forced to take a leave of absence from work, having been diagnosed with lead poisoning.

Yet this didn’t stop the car manufacturers using leaded fuel, despite the fact that adding ethanol (which is alcohol and can be made cheaply from sugar cane, sorghum or wheat) to the fuel would have made the engines just as efficient. General Motors owned Midgley’s patent for the leaded fuel additive, and unleaded fuel simply would not have been as profitable.

It was not until more than 20 years later that Clair Patterson discovered the damage that lead was doing to the earth and everything living on it. Patterson should be a household name, but few have heard of him, and some may erroneously think he was a woman, based on his first name.

After World War II, Patterson used mass spectrometry to try and determine the age of the earth. His research showed that the earth was 4.5 billion years old, a number which is still accepted by scientists today. However, during his research he noticed highly elevated levels of lead in all his mineral samples. Comparing samples of deep ocean rocks to those in shallower waters, he pinpointed the beginning of the lead contamination to 1923. He realized this coincided with the introduction of leaded gasoline and dedicated the rest of his life to having the lead removed from petrol.

He met with huge opposition from the car manufacturers, who tried to stop his research by getting his funding cut, and engaged in a smear campaign against him. General Motors hired pathologist Robert Kehoe to whitewash the harmful effects of lead exposure. Kehoe was feted by the industry and became the sole medical expert on the toxicology of lead for over 40 years. Meanwhile Patterson continued to campaign and demonstrated over and over that atmospheric lead was more than 1,000 times above natural levels and that humans had 600 times more lead in their bodies than their ancestors.

Patterson was ignored and ridiculed for years. It was only in 1976 that the US Environmental Protection Agency called for a reduction in lead levels. And even then, only as a precaution. By the 1980s, Patterson’s work was accepted and in 1986, filling stations began removing leaded fuel from the forecourts. By December 31, 1995, there was no more leaded gas sold in the US. Unfortunately, that achievement came a few weeks after Patterson died following an asthma attack.

Other countries also began banning leaded petrol from their cars. This was a gradual process. The last country to eliminate leaded petrol was Algeria, in 2021.

Midgley’s invention caused unimaginable damage to the environment and to society. According to UN figures the removal of leaded petrol resulted in, “$2.4 trillion in annual benefits, 1.2 million fewer premature deaths [and] higher overall intelligence.”

(Midgley went on to do even more damage to the environment – he developed Freon, used as a coolant in fridges for decades. Freon, a chemical in the CFC family, destroyed the ozone layer, leading to an increase in skin cancer, cataracts, DNA damage and a host of other damages.)

Back to crime rates. In 1999, an economist named Rick Nevin published an article entitled, “How lead exposure relates to temporal changes in IQ, violent crime, and unwed pregnancy.” He noticed that about 20 years after lead was introduced to fuel, there was a rise in violent crime, and conversely, two decades after the introduction of unleaded petrol, crime rates fell.

Because different countries switched to unleaded fuel at different times, it should be possible to confirm if there is indeed a link between lead and crime, independent of other environmental factors. Nevin repeated his analysis on data from Australia, Canada, Finland, France, Italy, New Zealand, United Kingdom, West Germany and found that on average, crime began to decline 19 years after lead was removed from the fuel.

This research is not accepted by everyone. There are many suggestions for the drop in violent crime. But one thing is for certain – the entire world is much better off without the lead that was only added to gasoline to allow big corporations to make more money.

The lag of two decades between the increase or decrease in lead and its effect on the population made me think of this week’s Torah portion and the sin of the spies.

Moses sent 12 spies into Canaan for 40 days. Their task was to tell the nation what a wonderful land they were about to conquer, to encourage and excite the people. Instead, 10 of the spies returned and claimed that although it was a very good land, it would be impossible for the Israelites to conquer it.

At first, God wanted to erase almost the entire people for believing the words of the spies and begin again with a new nation descended from Moses (Numbers 14:12). However, Moses argued that this would look bad and the Egyptians would think that God did not have the power to bring his people into Israel. So instead, as punishment for believing the words of the spies, the entire nation was sentenced to spend 40 years in the desert. God says (Numbers 14:29-31):

In this desert your carcasses will fall, all that were numbered according to their number, from 20 years old and upward, who complained against Me… Your children whom you said would be destroyed, I will bring them and they will know the land that you despised.

Unlike other sins, when the perpetrators were punished and then life continued as normal, the sin of the spies was so great that it would take a generation to recover from the damage caused. The toxins that the report put into the minds of the people would take four decades to be removed.

Sometimes the damage, whether physical or spiritual, can be so great that it takes decades to undo the harm caused.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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