His death the other day passed almost unnoticed, but to my mind, Derek Bryce-Smith, an eccentric and obdurate retired professor at Reading University, was one of the greatest public health heroes of them all.
More than half a century ago, Bryce-Smith was the first to draw attention to the dangers of lead in petrol, sparking off the worldwide campaign to eliminate it. Ridiculed and marginalised for decades, he lived to see the toxic metal banned from fuel in almost every country. That puts him in the same rank as John Snow, the celebrated 19th-century physician, who identified London’s contaminated drinking water as the cause of cholera.
In retrospect, adding lead to fuel seems like madness – possibly the greatest experiment in mass poisoning ever undertaken. For 70 years, we put a known toxin, one especially harmful to children, into hundreds of millions of machines, which turned it into a fine aerosol, easily inhaled. And we then moved them billions of miles every day, all over the globe, spewing out the poison as widely as possible.
As a result, countless millions of children suffered damage to their brains. By the time leaded fuel was phased out in Britain, at least one child in 20 – by the government’s own figures – had been exposed at levels known to diminish intelligence: in India, the proportion was one in two. No one will ever know what potential was lost worldwide in consequence, or how many children developed severe learning difficulties. But raised lead levels have also been associated with ADHD, accelerated ageing, and even a greater tendency to criminal behaviour. Read story at The Telegraph