LEAD Action News

LEAD Action News vol 6 no 1,  1998ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News ( ISSN 1440-0561)
The journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.

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Beware misLEADing words

By Theresa Gordon, NO-LEAD, Newcastle, NSW.

"In a society of ideological believers nothing is more ridiculous than the individual who doubts and does not conform"

Over the years, I have found myself involved in fights against corporate stratagems which manipulate language and images to win public support and approval. It is a paradox that, through the manipulation of language, greater public support for corporate ideology can be used against the public good.

In public interest debates, the playing field is not level. Grassroots groups and individuals can never match the resources of major corporations in the battle to be heard. Since the important weapons are words and images, the outcomes are not always clear cut. Subtleties and time are big factors – words and images can manipulate emotions, passions, instincts, dreams and a myriad of other responses in an individual, community or population.

Since my first encounter with word manipulation in the watering down of an important document on lead risk reduction from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), I have found this strategy has featured in almost every battle over lead I have been involved in. I have come to see that the aim of this strategy is not just to win a particular battle but also to win a propaganda war that has, as its prize, an unthinking and accepting majority population.

These points I make in an effort to examine the question of the manipulation by and conduct of our authorities and bureaucracies. It is via these government departments that the influence on the people’s perception is at its most damaging. Industry propaganda also uses similar methods.

The threat of ideology

The subtlety of the manipulation of language belies the power of effect. When an initiative appears well meaning and progressive (such as the OECD initiative) supporters often look to praise the intention, not nit pick about words used. But I have found that nit picking is essential. On the surface, a battle may appear to be about, say, tightening a regulation, but the battle is but part of a war for allegiance and trust. In effect it is seeking the support for the corporate ideology.

The influential thinker and social commentator Saul argues in his 1995 book Unconscious Civilisation that promotion of corporate ideology (or any ideology for that matter) and the embracing of ideology leads to passivity. Ideologies infer that those responsible for developing this ideology have the truth and should be followed without question, else you risk being seen as irrational or worse still ‘unfashionable’. Saul states:

Those who have the "truth" are by definition a small minority. They are the elect. Their desire is not to convince the rest of us of their truth. It isn’t a matter of democratic debate with all the compromise that involves. They have the truth. The aim of the ideologue is therefore to manipulate, trick or force the majority into acceptance.

A corporate ideology is based on short-term gains for these elite. This system leaves no room for the long-term public good. Saul warns

In a corporatist system, there is never any money for the public good because the society is reduced to the sum of the interests. It is therefore limited to measurable self-interest.

Why do people allow themselves to be manipulated in this way? Saul, by titling his book The Unconscious Civilisation, conjures up a vision of a civilisation blindly following the leaders. He argues that ideologies take hold by erosion of the worth of the individual’s power in favour of the participation of relevant groups.

However, most people don’t see this control. They see themselves as making conscious decisions. The trouble is that that decision is often one that entails an unconscious trust in the relevant authorities directive. Almost ninety years ago, Rudolph Steiner, in a 1909 lecture, stated:

Many people who call themselves practical imagine that their actions are guided by the most practical principles. But if we inquire more closely, we find that their so-called ‘practical thought’ is often only the continuing pursuit of traditional opinions and habits ... practical thought consists in following the example of some authority whose ideas are accepted as a standard construction of some object

Watering down in the OECD

In 1991, I had my first encounter with the determination of industry and Government bureaucracies to use manipulation of language to undermine environmental initiatives. The Australian and Canadian governments, along with industry lobby groups, put concerted effort into stopping an OECD initiative aimed at tackling the international trans-border effects of lead

The OECD process started in 1991 with a draft document seeking co-operative OECD efforts for ‘Lead Risk Reduction Activities’. The draft document was an extremely informative document that inspired many, including myself, to help tackle this serious yet ubiquitous lead problem.

Australia, being one of the world’s largest lead producers, nominated itself as a Clearinghouse country and director of much of the OECD consultative process. I was one of two Australian citizens allowed to be a "correspondent" in the consultative process, and thus see versions of the draft and make comments.

My main observation was that Australia’s actions contributed to a clear example of a bureaucratic capitulation in the undermining of this OECD environmental health initiative. One of the main weapons used was the changes of inference with wording of the draft document for Lead Risk Reduction Activities.

The first OECD draft dated 21st May 1991 (Paris) fulfilled the original health based intentions. It made clear statements about the real threats of lead, both to humans and to the environment. It suggested that an international cooperative strategy could be developed, similar to the Montreal Protocol for CFC’s.

Initiatives aimed at tackling the lead problem were to include no new uses which present unreasonable health risks, a tax on virgin lead, promotion of recycling and safe disposal practices, education campaigns about product risks, promotion of substitution where possible and development of substitution and cleaner production technologies. It was a great start.

Industry lobby groups worked quickly. A group called International Lead Zinc Research Organisation – ILZRO – (how very important these groups sound) released statements condemning most of the initiative.

The second draft in 1992 had a very different tone to the first. It was a much watered down affair. Gone were the statements such as:

Lead is a natural toxicant which affects a broad spectrum of species and persists in the environment.

Lead is a particularly hazardous ecotoxicant.

The effects of lead exposure on plants include inhibited plant growth, reduced photosynthesis, and reduced water absorption: and all of these effects may result in plant death and reproduction failure

The final document dated 1993 makes no statement on lead's damaging effects to ecosystems or environment. The document had been manipulated and watered down to the point where it was nothing more than a collection of member countries’ regulations and standards.

I believe the first step taken, by those interested in reining in the Lead Risk Reduction Activities, was to make changes to the initial intentions by manipulating the language used.

A change in inference with wording from Risk Reduction to Risk Management was a good start. This in turn set the scene for major changes to the body of the document. The change in inference was that lead risks could be managed. Australia’s Bureau for Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE) responded to the first draft by arguing:

Tradeoffs will be required between the levels of risk and the economic resources that are available to manage risks. To date, the OECD strategy has not considered the economic dimension of managing risks of exposure to lead. Rather, the strategy is based on the idea that risk reduction should be the primary objective instead of risk management.

The very progressive section of the document headed Summary and Conclusions was weakened and retitled Summary and Considerations. This instantly moved away from action and back to more ‘consideration’. Despite the fact that there is more than enough factual data to draw sound conclusions, both industry and protective governments were buying time by changing the wording. One small word change but with major implications.

Not happy with just undermining the integrity of the first draft, Australia then proceeded to espouse the usefulness of the final document.

By watering down the document, Australia and Canada also succeeded in stopping what would have been the first OECD Council Act that would include legally binding agreements aimed toward protecting non-OECD countries as well as OECD members. The Council Act would have helped alleviate situations such as Western industry selling fully leaded petrol in the developing world while the West protects itself by phase-outs or bans on leaded petrol.

The Lead and You pamphlet

Industry propaganda also makes use of slight changes in inference or an addition of a word as a powerful way to influence thoughts and feelings. A very good example of the additional word can be found in a pamphlet produced by Australian Lead Development Association in 1994, Lead & You: Harnessing the benefits and minimising the risks.

This professional pamphlet, with its comforting green tones, softens you up with the inviting title ‘Lead & You’. Inside, the pamphlet refers to .... the health risks associated with prolonged exposure to lead.... and also says excessive absorption of lead is detrimental to human health.

We are led to believe that it is only ‘prolonged’ exposure to lead that is a worry and only ‘excessive’ absorption is detrimental to human health. However, the facts are that science can not say that any amount of lead is safe for human health.

In fact, recent analyses of lead exposure and children’s IQ could find no evidence of a threshold, suggesting that the current 10 g/dL standard permits nervous system damage

The back section of the Lead and You pamphlet tells us that already lead offers exciting technical advances for the future, such as the zero emissions electric car, which has the potential to be the vehicle of the future. It does not state that the mining, production, use, recycling and disposal of lead is a highly toxic process that continues to impact negatively on human health and ecosystems wherever any lead activity is performed.

The pamphlet does not indicate that many practices that our society views as standard are compromised by the production of lead, including occupational safety, discrimination on the basis of sex (women are excluded from some lead jobs due to hazards), and social justice practices relating to human health and environmental health.

While the pamphlet appears to be a blatant attempt by the lead industry at propaganda, most people would not see it for what it is. Too many in our society want and need to trust in the corporate gods. Capitalism and the corporate giants that symbolise capitalism are projected as our way forward, our way out of the mess towards our future. Many think: Yes, there are tradeoffs but we have to believe, we have to trust, or we are doomed. Corporate giants are seen as the rational professional pillars of society.

Final words

Saul argues Today’s power uses as its primary justification for doing wrong the knowledge possessed by experts.......... Knowledge is more effectively used today to justify wrong being done than to prevent it.

On reading this, my thoughts go straight to the ABARE response to the OECD document, which says that risk analysis involves an integrated approach to risk assessment and management, combining the disciplines of science, medicine, economics, engineering and psychology to determine an optimal level of risk for society for given activities.

Who said the aim was for the optimal level of risk? ABARE is a supposedly independent government economic research organisation, but one is left to wonder how independent when board positions are filled by major mining, energy and industrial corporations.

o why did the Australian Government act to undermine an international environmental health initiative such as the OECD Lead Risk Reduction Activities?

I believe the answer is that governments today adopt the corporate ideology. It may be un-contestable that lead contamination damages the health of many, but so too are the facts that lead industries generate export dollars and jobs, and affect numbers at polling booths.

Governments, like corporations, are interested in short term economic or political gains over the long term public good.

How nicely the change in wording from risk reduction to risk management, or Summary and Conclusions to Summary and Considerations, help Australia to achieve the image of helping while in fact I believe they were hindering.


  1. Saul Unconscious Civilization, 1995, p. 20. Published by Penguin Books, Australia.

  2. Saul op cit p. 23-24; Saul op cit p. 37; Saul op cit p.45

  3. Steiner, "Free Will, Immortality" (Lecture given in Karlsruhe, Jan. 18th, 1909). From Anthropology in Everyday Life. Four Lectures by Rudolf Steiner. 1995, p. 1. Published by Anthroposophy Press, Hudson, NY, USA.

  4. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Co-operation on Existing Chemicals: Risk Reduction Lead, 16th joint meeting, 21st May, Paris, 1991, pages 1-10 http://www.oecd.org/chemicalsafety/risk-management/1955919.pdf

  5. Thorpe, S. Kilijn, N. & Cox, A. Economic Effects on the Lead – Zinc Industry of Possible OECD Risk Reduction Measures for Lead. Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ABARE). Canberra, Australia, 1995, p.3.
    Thorpe, Kilijn & Cox op cit p.3 

  6. Schwartz J., Low-Level Lead Exposure and Children’s IQ: A Meta Analysis and Search for a Threshold. Published by Environmental Research 1994 Apr; 65(1): 42-55. Abstract: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8162884

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