Policy Documents

The EPA's Faustian Bargain

David Schoenbrod –
October 1, 2006

President richard nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency and Congress passed the Clean Air Act in 1970 because the public demanded protection. The pollution that worried voters most was lead in gasoline and its effects on children. The bumper stickers read: “GET THE LEAD OUT.” Congress, in the Clean Air Act, took responsibility for a rule that would eventually reduce lead exposure. The act authorized the epa to require that new cars made from 1975 onward use only lead-free gas.

Lawmakers’ motivation in backing this rule was not, however, to protect children from lead. Congress had decided that auto manufacturers must, from 1975 on, include a pollutioncontrolling device in their cars. The device of choice, the catalytic converter, cut many pollutants, but not lead — in fact, lead would ruin it. For Congress to require motorists to pay for the device and then let it be ruined by leaded gas would look foolish. So, out of concern for the well-being of catalytic converters and their own reputations, the legislators backed the rule requiring new cars to use only unleaded gasoline. Congress could not tell voters in 1970 that this rule to protect pollution control devices was sufficient to protect children from lead. Children would still be exposed to lead from gasoline for many years after 1970.The rule did not even take effect until 1975, and when it did, older cars could still use leaded gas and emit lead in their exhaust. In 1975, there would be roughly 100 million leaded gas–burning cars on the road, and many of them would remain there, emitting lead well into the 1980s.