Have lead, will damage

STAR PLUS began a new science and technology series called Equinox in December. The first episode -- an hour-long documentary called Heavy Metal -- dealt with lead. Though the first of the series was essentially on pollution, Equinox will look at a variety of technological issues in the weeks ahead.

To be fair, Heavy Metal was as much about technology as about pollution. The documentary devoted much of its time explaining why car engines used leaded petrol, the shifts in the economics of car manufacture and the technologies and government policies needed to bring about the advent of unleaded petrol in some western countries. It talked to car manufacturers and organisations campaigning on this issue and found the UK and other European Community countries were finding it more difficult to implement stringent clear air laws than the US.

The toll The documentary began by depicting the havoc caused by the lead emissions of 137,000 vehicles that whizz by on a British highway in a day. All farms along the road are affected, an ominous fact because lead lodges permanently in the soil and does not get washed out during a human being's life span. Similarly, vegetables grown in central London have lead deposits as do fruits sold at roadside stalls.

As you watch, you cannot help wondering whether Indian city dwellers will be able to afford the luxury of such concerns. In a country where the majority is concerned about subsistence, unleaded petrol is a luxury that neither car manufacturers nor policy makers give much thought to. Who has the time to stop and think about the havoc lead emissions might be causing to thousands of children and adults who hawk goods in the middle of roads all day?

The damage done by lead to the human body is something that the documentary does not dwell on for very long, apparently because research on this is not yet conclusive. But sustained exposure to lead is thought to affect the brain. The film was a good case-study of the sustained lobbying and concerted action required to get consumers and manufacturers in a consumer society to switch buying habits and technologies in deference to long-term ecological concern.