In the 1920s, lead was introduced as an ingredient in gasoline to increase the efficiency of gasoline engines. This application caused a significant amount of lead to appear in the atmosphere, and, subsequently, in the blood of humans (and other animals).
Another major use of lead is in house paint. This has been a major factor in getting lead into the blood of children, with detrimental effects on mental capacity and on general health.
Lead in plumbing and in water-delivery systems is still a problem. A few years ago, it was found that lead-contaminated drinking water was flowing into the homes of many residents of Washington, DC. It took a heroic effort by civil-engineering professor Marc Edwards to get the relevant agencies to mandate remedial action .
Asbestos is another mineral that has been widely used for a long time. A major application has been fireproofing and insulation. Centuries ago, it became evident that asbestos is a potential killer, as many engaged in mining it fell victim to fatal lung diseases. Of the roughly 4 million Americans who worked in shipyards during WWII, about 60,000 eventually died of asbestos-related diseases. Although asbestos use in the US has been greatly reduced, it has still not been completely outlawed.
Into the unknown
The most difficult problems involve new technology that has very obvious, attractive characteristics, while little, or nothing, is known about the effects of long-term use.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in food products are one example. Partly because of the novel nature of the technology, our traditional laws concerning food regulation are inadequate. Although a number of small-scale investigations have turned up indications of problems, some quite serious, these have not been followed up by appropriate studies. Why not?
While the large corporations profiting from this technology are strongly motivated to defend their products, often funding research to develop arguments in their favor, there is no adequate countervailing force. One tactic of the corporations has been to ensure that our regulatory agencies are not funded sufficiently to carry out adequate studies. E.g., the entire annual budget of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) is less than $5 billion. A large proportion of the scientists in the fields pertinent to the agency's work, at one time or other, are either employed by corporations subject to its rulings, consult for them, or work for universities that depend on corporation grants.