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Lee Hibbert listens to a documentary about an unsung environmental hero whose work removed a major public health hazard.

There's been some highly acclaimed eco-heroes over the years. Perhaps the most famous is Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring, which when published in 1962 proved a revelatory account of the damage done by the unrestrained use of pesticides. Also high on the list would be James Lovelock, the eminent scientist and proposer of the Gala hypothesis.

But if you said the name Clair Patterson to the average person in the street, the most likely response would be "who's she?" Actually, Clair Patterson was a he, not a she. But the gender confusion is indicative of the man's low profile. This unsung nature comes despite Patterson's extraordinary work to reveal the contamination of the environment caused by the use of lead.

Now the BBC is attempting to gain recognition for Patterson's work with a radio documentary that outlines his achievements. Clair Patterson--Scourge of the Lead Industry is presented by Dr Hermione Cockburn, and it's clear that she's done her homework. The broadcast rattles through Patterson's early career using a mix of interviews with relatives and colleagues.

We learn how Patterson, born in 1922, was a talented geochemist whose early work was driven by the development of a uranium-lead dating method, using lead and uranium isotopic data from the Canyon Diablo meteorite. His eureka moment came in the laboratory in the early 1950s when he used his dating approach to calculate the age of the earth at 4.55 billion years--a figure that was deemed far more accurate than those that existed at the time.


Such was Patterson's elation at his discovery that, on the day he established the figure, he was rushed to hospital by his mother with a suspected heart attack. It was a false alarm, thankfully, brought on by over-excitement.

During this early work, Patterson realised that lead contamination was everywhere. He set about tracking its invasiveness through the environment, collecting samples from oceans. Much of the lead found in high quantities matched the composition of tetra-ethyl lead--the anti-knock additive added to petrol since the 1920s.

He published papers ascribing high concentrations of lead in surface waters to industrial contamination, mainly the exhaust fumes from cars, and his findings didn't go down well in certain sectors. Patterson faced ridicule and scorn from the lead industry lobby, carmakers and the petroleum industry combined. He was called a zealot, and a rabble rouser, and those were just some of the kinder words.

Patterson's son, Cameron, says he even thought his father was at risk of assassination. There would have been plenty of suspects--lead in those days was found in food cans, water tanks, even toothpaste tubes--it was everywhere.

But Patterson never gave up. Further sampling showed just how bad an impact lead poisoning had had on the atmosphere, with dating spikes matching important milestones such as the invention of tetra-ethyl lead. An investigation into the food chain found that contamination levels in tinned tuna were 5,000 times greater than those in freshly caught fish owing to lead leaching out of the soldered seams. It was this finding that really hit home.

Gradually public and government opinion changed. Lead started to be taken out of many products, and the results were amazing: average blood lead levels of American adults fell by 80% between the 1960s and 1990s.

What struck Coekburn in the making of this programme was just how passionate and single-minded Patterson was about his work. He died in 1995 and by then had made an enormous impact on all of our lives--yet he remains largely unknown. It is well worth listening to this 30-minute broadcast to learn about a modest man who deserves greater recognition.

Clair Patterson--Scourge of the Lead Industry goes out on Monday 14 July on BSC Radio 4
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Author:Hibbert, Lee
Publication:Professional Engineering Magazine
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Jul 9, 2008
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