The Banality of Slow Drips

Over the years, Andrew Revkin has perceptively identified “slow drip” environmental stories as a category unto itself. These range from the tragic to the banal.

It’s bad enough that these “slow drip” stories receive little sustained coverage; it’s worse when you write about them and nobody seems to notice. John Fleck, the superb science writer for The Albuquerque Journal, reflects on why this might be at his blog:

I did a story in 2001 about research by a clever scientist named Bob Root who had quantified the lead wheel weights falling off of our cars’ wheels. The amount was staggering ““ four tons per year in a city the size of Albuquerque, being ground up into toxic dust.

I wrote a front page story. No one called me. No one called Bob. There was no outrage, no calls for regulation. Nada.

It’s easy to imagine what the level of outrage would have been if the contamination was coming for a corporate polluter. Or, this being New Mexico, one of our nuclear weapons research centers. But perception of risk and outrage over its causes seems to be strongly linked to our beliefs about who is responsible. With no evil actor behind the lead wheel weights, no one seemed to care.

Fleck’s post was prompted by a column (sub req) he wrote this week, revisiting the same toxic dust problem ten years later. This time, he put a different twist on it:

Imagine what might happen if we discovered some company was clandestinely dumping 4 tons a year of toxic waste on the streets of Albuquerque.

Let’s call it DefenseCo Inc., and let’s say its workers were dribbling out their toxic waste a tiny bit at a time as they drove around the city’s streets, year after year after year, spreading it all over town hoping no one would notice.

Just to juice it up, imagine it was a type of toxic waste that was especially harmful to children, and that this was happening all over the country, not just in Albuquerque.

Imagine the outrage.

That is, in fact, what is happening, with a caveat. It’s not DefenseCo Inc. that’s dumping the toxic waste in our streets. It’s you and me. The waste we’re dumping is lead, which falls off our cars’ wheels in dribs and drabs, is ground into dust, and ends up who knows where.

As hazardous materials go, lead is a bad actor. Children are especially vulnerable. It can damage nervous systems and slow cognitive growth.

The fact that it’s ordinary drivers causing this, rather than an evil corporate polluter, matters not a bit in terms of the health and environmental risks. Lead is lead.

Again, Fleck was greeted by silence from readers.

And people wonder why there’s no public outrage over global warming, perhaps the biggest “slow drip” story of our time.

35 Responses to “The Banality of Slow Drips”

  1. thingsbreak says:

    I think that JFleck, Andy, and you all deserve kudos for trying to prod a reaction on this concept.
    I think that we’re finally seeing an engagement on perhaps the biggest (on shorter than end-of-century timescales) slow-drip health threat for the US-  nutrition- from a systemic health perspective.
    Yes, of course we’ve always heard to eat less and excercise more- but having people like Jamie Oliver pointing out the sugaring of school milks, acknowledging the societal inequality dimension,  etc. seems to reflect a sea change on the issue on where the emphasis is needed (personal responsibility vs. structural forces).

  2. Hank Roberts says:

    I commented on that over at John’s blog a few days ago — last I checked the comment was still in the moderation queue.
    This has been handled at the state level so far.
    It’s always helpful to look this stuff up, and include the search info for people who don’t know how to find it:
    The same organizations that got Califoria law changed is among those working on federal level change:

  3. rustneversleeps says:

    Seems to me that the “slow drip” and “it’s not DefenseCo, it’s just l’il ole me and you” are two of the main vectors in <a href=””>Dan Gilbert’s P.A.I.N. framework</a> – the threat “needs” to be ‘personal, abrupt, immoral and now’.

    And of course there are plenty of others who have made the same case. And other cases…

    What’s frustrating to me is that we seem to be a hell of a lot better at diagnosis than prescription.  Not that my contribution just helped any either!

  4. John Fleck says:

    Hank – Apologies about the moderation. It’s Tour de France, and I’ve been away from the computer and missed several comments caught up in the queue.
    Re state regulation, this is one of those issues poorly served by a regulatory patchwork, which makes it hard for manufacturers and vendors to deal with varying regs in different places. It’s actually slowly having the desired effect. Because of EU regs, car makers routinely use non-lead on new cars (they don’t want to maintain two supply chains). But the lack of a national regulation means most of the aftermarket is still using lead.

  5. Hank Roberts says:

    > regulation
    Yep; the states took the lead while Bush controlled the EPA; now the EPA is able to act.  So many things follow the same pattern, because the US doesn’t allow the precautionary principle so widely adopted elsewhere.
    Antibiotic resistance; plenty of examples going back years
    Salt.  New Scientist commented on the clear dangers of excess salt a few months ago, writing “…  However, the food industry is fighting a bitter rearguard action against any such move….”
    Nutrition and processed food. (highly recommended)
    It’s not “slow drip” — it’s “marketing lies and delays” that’s the problem.  A market can develop rapidly while the science lags behind (at least the published science, we know from the tobacco archives that industry can know exactly what they’re selling for a long time before the public finds out).

  6. Hank Roberts says:

    More recent workshop video from the same NIH consultant, Bill Lands — he’s very blunt about how the pressure from industry has maintained and worsened a very profitable problem.
    I wonder all the time how much information is known and yet has been effectively hidden, about problems like these.

  7. GaryM says:

    OK, just to get it out of the way, I have no problem with substituting a less toxic substance than lead for wheel weights, sounds like a good idea to me.  And I receive no funding from big lead.
    But there are three reasons I can think of that this “slow drip” health risk is not receiving the attention those writing about it would like.  First, this.  Blood tests by children showing a reducti0n in elevated blood levels from over 7% in 1997, to about 1% in 2007, without any real significant movement on this wheel weight issue.
    Second, and I think probably more importantly for purposes of this blog, the public hears claims of looming catastrophe all the time.   (My favorite was the claim that coconut oil in movie theater butter flavoring was a severe health risk.  You can have my popcorn when you pry it from my cold, dead, oily fingers.)
    You’ve got your global warming, your asteroids crashing into the Earth, the Y2K bug, NASA’s latest prediction of impending catastrophe from a coming solar storm, second hand smoke, salt, silicone implants….
    If you want real attention in this culture of doom and gloom (and ever increasing life expectancies),  you have to do better than a guesstimate of the amount of lead deposited in the gutters of the streets of Albuquerque.  (Show some actual cases of lead exposure tied to this risk and watch the difference in response from the public.)
    Finally, not to be a skeptic or anything (and having way too much time on my hands this afternoon) I actually read the study.  The results (that have been amplified in subsequent reports on a national basis), are based almost exclusively on one 2.6 kilometer stretch of one of the busiest 6 lane streets in Albuquerque, that had a 65km/hr speed limit and numerous stoplights.  The researcher expressly chose that particular site to do his 46 week study because he found the most lead in that one site out of the 8 streets on which he did initial sampling.
    In explaining his final calculation of the total lead deposited in Albuquerque on an annual basis, he:  1)  made no attempt to determine lead deposits on some other types of street; 2)  simply assumed deposits on those other streets would be at least 2/3 on the single street tested; 3)  made no description of the road surface conditions, except for noting the presence of stop lights; 4)  extrapolated the annual total for Albuquerque based on the figures for his one sampling area, with minor statistical adjustments.
    I don’t pretend to be a scientist.  But I take the question of this post to be:  why the public at large did not respond more dramatically when it was first reported?   Short answer, the public has reached the point where it takes almost any “scientific” warning with a box of salt.
    I know people who lived in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit.  They, and many others like them, ignored the warnings of the severity of the storm (until the last minute) because there had been so many false alarms before Katrina.  The people who stand to lose the most from the culture of alarmist science are those who will not heed the warnings that really are based on sound, careful, conservative science.

  8. Hank Roberts says:

    > a box of salt
    You missed the warning about salt?
    > lead … reduction to 1 percent
    “elevated blood lead” defined
    That definition — even lobbyists for the industry admit — is way too high, and this has been known for at least a decade.
    “No level of lead exposure appears to be ‘safe’ and even the current ‘low’ levels of exposure in children are associated with neurodevelopmental deficits. Primary prevention of exposure provides the best hope of mitigating the impact ….”

  9. GaryM says:

    The  “1%” refers to the percentage of the children who tested with elevated levels of lead in their blood, not the level that constitutes “elevated” (or  what level, if any, is “safe” for that matter).  The point was the reduction in exposure to lead already accomplished “without any real significant movement on this wheel weight issue.”  And the point was made in the context of suggesting an answer to the question; why was there not a more dramatic public response to this research.
    Lead from wheel weights might pose an unacceptable risk of lead exposure itself, or it might at least be slowing the reduction in lead exposure over all, but I don’t think the cited research demonstrates either sufficiently to justify the type of public response that was apparently expected.   As my post indicated, substituting another less toxic substance for lead in the weights seems like a good idea.  But that was not the question posed in this post.

  10. John Fleck has some very good insights in that post. Another issue at work may be the speed of the problem occurring: A problem manifesting itself in slow motion/incrementally is taken less serious than a sudden state change. As with when you put a frog in boiling water vs slowly heating up the water they’re in.

  11. Marlowe Johnson says:

    FYI the bit about the frog is an urban legend 🙂

  12. Andy says:

    I think there are a couple of factors at play:
    1. Intentions matter.  There’s a big difference between people intentionally attempting to surreptitiously dump toxic material and largely unnoticed pollution resulting from a normal activity that we all engage in. The DefenseCo analogy doesn’t hold for that reason in my opinion.
    2. Media exposure.  A couple of articles on one study isn’t sufficient to generate the political support necessary for action.  I would bet that most people have never heard of this problem.
    3.  Related to #2 is human threat perception.  We’re not strictly utilitarian when it comes to prioritizing threats.    Part of that is human nature, but part is also media driven – the high profile threats receive the most media exposure and, consequently, the most resources.

  13. Keith Kloor says:

    Andy (14):
    Excellent points. Let me offer an anecdote. Several years ago, I read an autobiography of Jack Newfield, the legendary investigative reporter for The Village Voice (now deceased). He talked about how he was frustrated that some of his pieces failed to elicit much notice, even when he was exposing various misdeeds.

    Then he started writing about the lead paint problem in New York City’s poorest areas, and he kept it at, which eventually prompted public attention and political action. That was a revelation to him and it taught him that you have to stay with an issue if you want to see it break through. In today’s world, obviously, blogs afford us this opportunity. But conventional journalism, as it’s practiced in mainstream newspapers and magazines, discourage this practice, unless there is a fresh “hook.”

    So it’s likely that John Fleck won’t be able to revisit this toxic dust problem for another ten years.

  14. Tom Fuller says:

    Well, I don’t want to suggest that Mr. Fleck write about the lead-based threat to polar bears, but he would have to conduct a campaign to highlight this issue.
    He would need to find one or more Albuquerque children with elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream, talk to highway workers that are exposed occupationally, interview EPA officials and provide a more comprehensive view of the issue. It looks like he also needs to get a more complete data set.
    Reporters do this all the time–getting a signature issue that they return to frequently. And over time it can have an effect. But the reporter has to work at it.

  15. Hank Roberts says:

    Gary, you misread the articles. One percent lead? That’s not even possible. Please read the articles again.  Point is the blood level defined long ago as the cutoff for saying “elevated” isn’t a safe level, and it’s long been well known there’s no safe level for lead.  All the sources need to be cut off; lead tire weights are a big source in some areas and a point source easy to stop (at the supplier level).
    Here’s another slow drip item for the journalists:
    “… decisions will be based on the “best available science”,. that ploy has worked well for them in terms of regulatory action. Watch what happens if the same science declares that the stock is in trouble or other sciences are given equal status in the regulatory process…..”

  16. Ken says:

    Not sure how relevent this is, but could some of this lead still be in the environment from the days of lead based gasolines?

  17. John Fleck says:

    GaryM –
    Re the shortcomings of Bob’s initial study, he’s always acknowledged those. His purpose was to take an initial cut at the problem, which he did on his own dime and time and which generated a surprising result which needed followup. Which no one was willing to fund. He had collaborators lined up and some clever next steps to try to better quantify exposure pathways, to distinguish wheel weight lead from other legacy sources in the environment, etc. In fact, one of the regulatory hurdles here (which is fodder for another story) is that the high standard set by TSCA for regulation of wheel weights requires some rather expensive studies to try to address precisely these questions. Given Hank’s point about the relatively clear epidemiology regarding even low levels of lead, and the remarkably low cost of shutting off this source of exposure, it’s probably societally cheaper to just ban ’em and get on with our lives.

    To Tom F and the others who have suggested a journalistic path for dealing with this (for ex. ” find one or more Albuquerque children with elevated levels of lead in their bloodstream, talk to highway workers that are exposed occupationally”), this sort of low-dose, widespread epidemiological problem is hard to deal with in a journalistically responsible way. Without the science of precisely the sort that Bob would like to see done, and which has not been done, it’s essentially impossible to identify such a child or highway worker in a responsible way. This is one of the characteristics of these slow drip problems. I’ve not read Newfield’s work on kids and lead paint, but my reading of the scientific literature suggests there was a significant body of research on lead paint and childhood exposure that paved the way.

    Andy – re “intentions matter”. In terms of our perception of the issue, you are right, intentions matter. We get mad when people willfully expose us to danger, and are therefore more likely to act. But in terms of actual exposure, intentions *don’t* matter. This is precisely my point.

  18. Hank Roberts says:

    A few of you, like me, are old enough that your food as kids came out of cans soldered using lead. We could have been smarter, you know.

    For decades scientists spoke up on this issue when their research, often in unrelated areas, made them aware of the widespread lead pollution and its dangers.

    We have heros. We just mostly don’t remember them.

    Industry fought every one of them in their turn.

    Look them up. You know how to do this. Here’s a very recent article as a place to start.

    The Elephant in the Playground
    confronting lead-contaminated soils as an important source of lead burdens to urban populations

    Gabriel M. Filippelli and Mark A. S. Laidlaw
    Perspectives in Biology and Medicine
    winter 2010 “¢ volume 53, number 1

    … soil””particularly the fine dust that derives from soil during dry periods and blankets horizontal surfaces inside and outside of homes””is
    a prime culprit in the poisoning of our children by lead.The inability of remediation of paint alone to reduce the blood-lead levels of urban youth is one clue that we have been missing a key additional source of lead to our children ….
    A number of scientific champions brought lead hazards to the public’s attention. In the 1950s, Cal Tech geochemist Clair Patterson was conducting experiments to pinpoint the age of various rocks, but his results were skewed by consistent lead contamination. Further studies showed that lead levels were elevated in certain waters, soils, organisms (Settle and Patterson 1980), even Arctic ice–and most troubling, in the human body. Over the next three decades, Patterson helped to lead a crusade against lead that attracted the vociferous opposition of
    industry groups. But this effort eventually convinced lawmakers and regulators to
    outlaw lead in pipes, solder, and finally in gasoline (Bryson 2003). In a parallel
    fashion, Herbert Needleman fought against industrial, and even university, opponents to his findings of irreversible neurological defects as a result of lead poisoning of children (Needleman, Tuncay, and Shapiro 1972; for an account of this struggle, see Rosner and Markowitz 2005). As a result of efforts by Patterson and Needleman, among others, the number of children affected by lead poisoning in the United States has been reduced by over 80%. In the movies, this triumph would signal the closing credits–but in the real world, the story continues.

    While less than 2% of children aged 0″“5 years in the United States suffer from lead poisoning today (a value much improved but still a serious public health epidemic), children living in the urban centers of the East and Midwest have lead
    poisoning rates of 15″“20% (NHANES 2003). In 1980, Clair Patterson presaged the current state of environmental insults to urban populations: “Sometime in the near future it probably will be shown that the older urban areas of the United States have been rendered more or less uninhabitable by the millions of tons of poisonous industrial lead residues that have accumulated in cities during the past century” (NRC 1980, p. 271). While many might consider lead poisoning a closed chapter in the annals of public health, recent research shows that the dangers still exist, and that they are elevated among the most at-risk children in our society.

    In this essay, we discuss how children are exposed to lead and how they are affected, where the continued sources of lead are in urban areas, and how earth scientists can inform health scientists to enhance the health of the population””particular the poor people who typically inhabit the polluted centers of our older cities.

    —end excerpt—

  19. […] tons of toxic lead on the streets of Albuquerque, N.M., is not news, and Keith Kloor discusses what this “slow drip” pollution problem has to do with global […]

  20. GaryM says:

    OK, perhaps poor writing on my part, but I did include a link to the statistics I cited (the caption of which reads:  “Confirmed EBLLs as a % of Children Tested”), and in my second post made it (I thought) clear, that the reduction I was referring to from 7% to 1% was in the percentage of children tested who showed elevated levels of lead in their blood.  Not that levels of lead in the blood declined by those figures. (I can see how the first post could be read that way, but the second?)
    As an initial study it is fine, an interesting piece of work on a matter of some importance.  And given the rest of what you write, I say good for him (the author), and his subsequent admirable efforts.  But the question of the post was about public reaction to his original research.  The fact that it is  best to get rid of all the lead we can from the environment, isn’t really relevant to that point.  I (and probably most people) would have agreed with that without any study on wheel weights at all.
    I am not a Steve McIntyre wannabe analyzing someone’s research on the dangers of lead.  Nor am I a pro or anti lead activist.  I am just someone interested in the climate debate, trying to respond to a question by the moderator of  this blog that was focused on how to change the nature of that debate. I only used the details of the study to make a point.
    My point was that the research in this initial paper alone was perhaps too sketchy and narrowly based to justify nationwide response and action.  If I am reading you properly, the author of that study essentially agreed so…no argument here.
    Now if only you can get the climate change scientists/advocates to be that open about their research and data, and to be as reasonable in seeing the need for more…we might see the kind of debate Keith would like to have.  Which would (returning to the main point) make the public more likely to respond favorably.

  21. On this subject I highly recommend “Silent Spill”, Thomas D. Beanish, MIT Press, 2002.
    Two paragraphs from the introduction:
    “What makes the Guadalupe spill so relevant is that it represents a genre … what I call crescive troubles. … “crescive” literally means “in the growing stage” … used in the applied sciences to denote phenomena that accumulate gradually, becoming well established over time. In cases of such incremental and cumulative phenomena (particularly contamination events), identifying the “cause” of injuries sustained is often difficult if not impossible because of their long duration and the high number of intervening factors. Applied to a more inclusive set of social problems, the idea of crescive troubles also conveys the human tendency to avoid dealing with problems as they accumulate. We often overlook slow-onset, long-term problems until they manifest as acute traumas and/or accidents.”
    “My specific intent is to uncover how and why the Guadalupe spill went unrecognized and was not responded to even though it occurred under unexceptional circumstances. The industrial conditions were quite normal, and the regulatory oversight was typical. It would seem that there was nothing out of the ordinary, other than millions of gallons of spilled petroleum. This is, in part, why the spill is so instructive. It represents a perceptual lacuna – a blank spot in our organizational and personal attentions.”

  22. Hank Roberts says:

    > the research in this initial paper alone

    You have to read the footnotes. I’d guess that’s the problem — and it’s a problem discussed generally about press coverage of science, which almost never manages to focus on explaining the background information that a scientific reader takes for granted will be read and understood.

    (That’s not an initial paper; it doesn’t stand alone; it details a controllable source, that’s all it does. The rest you need to know to understand why it matters.)

  23. Eric Roche says:

    Unlikely these lead weights would be pulverised.  Even if you put them in a ball mill they’d just plaster the internals – Pb is too ductile and resistant to oxidation.  I think you’ll find it mostly as flattened bits along the sides of the road.

    Biggest Pb health issue is legacy lead based paint being mobilised by renovation of people’s houses.  That and children eating dirt contaminated by the removed paint.  Much less public awareness of this issue = more of a problem.

    We are better off than the Romans though, who liked to use lead acetate as a food sweetener (no cane sugar those days!).

  24. Tom Fuller says:

    Eric at 25, there are those who maintain that the lead the Romans consumed (also lining aqueducts and amphorae) led to a distinct decline in their reasoning capacities. I think something else decline soon after.

  25. Eric Roche says:

    Tom #26 – true, though a few chilly barbarian tribes may have helped as well :).  However lead pipework is still in use.  I haven’t checked facts for a while but when I was working in the industry reputedly about 1/3 of household water pipes in the UK were still Pb.  It was a ‘too hard’ problem to replace them.

  26. Hank Roberts says:

    Eric Roche Says:…
    > Unlikely these lead weights would be
    > pulverised…. I think … mostly as
    > flattened bits along the sides of the road

    Read the paper, look at the pictures of the weights, and read the documentation about the distribution. Facts are there to inform you.

  27. Hank Roberts says:

    Eric’s right about Roman lead poisoning; you can look this stuff up. One example, with cites:

  28. Hank Roberts says:

    Slow drip: racism encouraged by the media.
    Nicely nailed here:

  29. Hank Roberts says:

    A reminder that if you have a big enough economy and armed forces, you can rip off the greater part of available climate change funds with impunity.  It’s called “finding a loophole and colonizing it” — nobody among the naive drafters imagined intentional misappropriation of these funds at this level would be allowed to continue.
    This has been a story for years, amply documented.  Yet it continues:

  30. Hank Roberts says:

    Another one; endocrine disruptors
    These chemicals also have effects on organisms that don’t have endocrine systems — like plankton.
    Precautionary principle?
    Effects of Endocrine Disruptors on Plankton
    The studies show that, beside vertebrates, other, less investigated organisms might be affected by EDs. Furthermore, indirect effects can play a major role for this kind of toxicants. Thus, for a comprehensive protection of ecosystems, it is insufficient to confine toxicity studies to species with hormone system or even vertebrates.
    For more information see the publication list of B.A. Hense.
    The studies were conducted in close cooperation with G. Welzl (Institute of Developmental Genetics, statistics), the Institute of Ecological Chemistry (group Schramm, chemical analysis, zooplankton) and Institute of Soil Ecology (group Schloter and Hartmann, microcosms, microorganisms), all Helmholtz Zentrum München.

  31. Hank Roberts says:

    oh, darn:
    Just when you think a ‘slow drip’ can go on forever ….
    “12 August 2010
    “The spread of a drug-resistant bacterial gene could herald the end of antibiotics, researchers warned us yesterday. ‘In many ways this is it,’ Tim Walsh at Cardiff University, UK, told The Guardian newspaper. ‘This is potentially the end.'”

  32. Hank Roberts says:
    No, this is not the BPA you’ve been hearing about so much.
    It’s New! Improved!  Worse?
    Probably.  But when can you be one hundred percent sure?

  33. Hank Roberts says:
    “It is very likely that the previously demonstrated trend of increasing NPP has now slowed.  It is possible that NPP is now actually decreasing, but the evidence for that is equivocal.”
    hat tip to:
    by way of:

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