Tuesday, December 06, 2011

The great scare about lead

This is the second part of an article by James Delingpole. The first part is about global warming but I think this part is extensive enough to warrant being published separately

Dr Herbert Needleman was a US child psychologist who generated headlines in 1979 with his research paper showing that lead poisoning was dramatically affecting children's IQs. This "evidence" became a vital plank in the case of the Environmental Protection Agency's regulations from 1986 onwards to have almost all lead removed from petrol. Just one problem: Needleman's study was about as reliable as Michael Mann's Hockey Stick.

In the Needleman affair, the McIntyre/McKitrick role was played by another academic child psychologist Dr Claire Ernhart, who worked in the same field as Needleman. She noted that Needleman's research was based on serious methodological flaws. In particular, she claimed that he had not sufficiently allowed for "confounding variables" that might have explained the difference in IQ scores such as poor schools or parental neglect.

When an expert panel from the EPA tried looking into this, however, Needleman proved as reluctant to reveal the basis of his research as Mann did with raw data underpinning his Hockey Stick.

According to Booker/North:
"When in 1983 the panel visited Needleman's laboratory to look at his data, he handed over six books of computer printouts, but said that only two panel members could examine them, and only for two hours."

"Even during this cursory study, the panel found enough evidence to arouse profound doubts about Needleman's research. Although starting with 3,329 children, he had winnowed out so many, often for apparently arbitrary reasons, that he had ended up basing his conclusions first on 270 subjects, then on just 158. 'Exclusion of large numbers of eligible participants' the panel concluded, 'could have resulted in systematic bias'. In other words, it looked to the panel as though he might have selected his evidence to give the results he wanted."

The expert panel concluded that Needleman's studies "neither support nor refute the hypothesis that low or moderate levels of Pb (lead) exposure lead to cognitive or other behavioural impairments in children." In other words, that his researches were valueless.

But hey, guess what happened then. Pressure was applied. The expert panel – for reasons which were never satisfactorily explained – completely reversed its decision. And the head of the EPA William Ruckelshaus (the same man responsible for the DDT ban which effectively condemned millions in the third world to die of malaria) was able to use Needleman's study as the basis for doing what the EPA and environmental campaigners had been wanting to do anyway: ban lead from petrol.

Unsurprisingly, the EU soon eagerly followed suit. As even the Eu Commission admitted, the new rules would cost consumers an additional £4.8 billion a year, raise the average cost of a car by up to £600 a year and force oil companies into £70 billion-worth of new investment. Oh, and also, EU studies estimated, the switch to unleaded (it being less efficient than leaded) would also result in the creation of 15-17 million tonnes a year more greenhouse gas emissions.