Stanford reflects on Earth Day at 50: Stephen Luby

Steve Luby, an epidemiologist, recounts the story of lead’s phase-out in the U.S.

Stephen Luby is a professor of infectious disease at the Stanford School of Medicine and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. His wide-ranging epidemiological research has included a focus on lead contamination in developing countries, most recently, analyses of lead in turmeric. Luby is part of an interdisciplinary project team, funded by the Stanford King Center on Global Development, seeking solutions to reduce lead exposure from various sources.

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Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, Professor Steve Luby reflects on the success of removing lead from gasoline in the U.S.

What is an example of a major environmental success story related to public health over the past 50 years?

The removal of lead – which is not safe in any quantity – from gasoline was a major public health milestone.


Why do you consider it of great significance/importance?

It had an enormous impact on public health, more than we appreciated at the time. It led to huge reductions in cardiovascular disease and major improvements in cognitive development and societal intelligence.


What led to the change?

Mounting evidence of lead’s damaging health effects, and good research stubbornly pursued turned the tide. Underfunded but dedicated scientists and public health researchers overcame decades of industry subterfuge and lobbying. At the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the issue got assigned to some young motivated new hires in the early 1970s, because the more senior people were away that day. After years of gradual phase-outs, the Clean Air Act finally banned all leaded fuel in 1996.

Effective Jan. 1, 1996, the Clean Air Act banned the sale of the small amount of leaded fuel that was still available in some parts of the country for use in on-road vehicles.


What lessons can we learn from this success story?

This is about the importance of good data. It’s about the benefit of considering the human health angle of environmental problems. Lead causes damage throughout the entire web of life, but the most persuasive argument for reducing environmental exposure was its effect on human health.