Ben Oostdam story # 320

GETTING THE LEAD OUT

(by John K. Nixon)
Ron Leadbeater (known to his friends and colleagues as Ron, and to his widowed mother as Ronald) was a short, earnest man with horn-rimmed glasses and a perpetual worried look on his face. He had just turned forty and was still living with his aging mother in her house in a leafy suburb of Ottawa. For years his mother had been encouraging him to find a wife, but in spite of her efforts to find someone to lead him down the aisle, Ron had resisted and had concentrated his time and energy on his academic studies, and later on his career. His mother meanwhile had come to the conclusion that Ron was not the marrying kind and had devoted her time to helping her only son in his chosen career. "Leadbeaters make better leaders" she would remind him as she constantly encouraged Ron to seek more responsibility and to apply for promotion in his job.

After he had graduated from university with a masterís degree in chemistry, Ron had had a chequered career working with various manufacturing firms in the Ottawa area. Although his talents and work ethic were beyond dispute, his nervous disposition, perfectionist tendencies and impatience with others of lesser intellect alienated him from many of his workmates. As a result he had seldom lasted more than a year or two with any one employer. Finally he had landed a job with the prestigious Donaught Laboratories in Ottawa. Here he found his niche as head of the Chemical Analysis Department. He had a team of six scientists and lab technicians under his wing. The Donaught Laboratories provided a contrast to the high pressure, deadline-insistent atmosphere prevalent in industry. Much of the work that Ronís department now did was on government contract for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, or was of a forensic nature for the RCMP or other law enforcement agencies. The sense of urgency that Ron had previously experienced was largely absent and Ron and his team were free to do detailed investigations and write meticulously researched reports. Furthermore Ron was respected by the rest of his team as a hands-on leader who could discuss and analyze problems with his underlings as well as interpret some of the more confusing lab test results.

After a year or so this state of affairs began to change. Donaught received a contract from the Government to inspect a batch of toys imported from China. The results showed conclusively that the paint used on the toys had a lead content far exceeding the permissible limits. Before long other batches of toys arrived by courier for inspection and testing. The problem persisted in spite of repeated warnings to the Chinese manufacturers to "get the lead out!" Soon Ron and his team found themselves swamped with work. First it was the popular toy Yelmo, then Darbie Dolls and the ubiquitous Thomas the Crank Engine. None of the major toy manufacturers was immune. Even respected and long-established firms like Richer Price had been fooled by unscrupulous Chinese sub-vendors that had used high lead-based paints on the products painted in their factories. The leading toy firm Mettal was sarcastically referred to as the "Heavy Metal Corporation".

Ron was now forced to work long hours and come in on weekends to keep pace with the growing workload. Often he could be seen late in the evening hunched over his office desk, running his fingers through his thinning hair and chewing nervously on the end of a well-worn pencil. He became irritable and impatient with his staff and soon began to suffer abdominal pain, constipation, headaches and fatigue. At first he put it down to stress and sleep-deprivation, but finally he succumbed to his motherís entreaties and had an appointment with his doctor. A series of blood tests were ordered and the results showed an elevated concentration of lead in Ronís blood.

At first Ron could not believe the results. After all, he and his team were scrupulous in following recommendations for avoiding contamination in the laboratory. It seemed inconceivable that Ron could have ingested lead in the workplace, and there was nothing in his home environment that could account for this phenomenon. He was seated at his desk ruminating on this when he idly picked up his well-chewed pencil and noted an inscription on the side "Made in China". The suspicion suddenly dawned on him that the yellow paint on the pencil had contained lead, which he had slowly ingested with his frenetic chewing. Without hesitation he called in his lead chemist and instructed him to run a test on the suspect pencil. The next day he was summoned to the lab to review the test results. Analysis of several paint samples taken from the shaft of the pencil showed no evidence of elevated lead content. One sample taken from the chewed end did however reveal the presence of lead, which had surprised the technician involved. Closer examination had shown that some traces of the lead inside the pencil had contaminated the paint sample. Further tests on the pencil lead showed unmistakable signs of lead content.

The unexpected revelation caused a sensation. Batches of Chinese-made pencils shipped in cartons clearly labeled "Lead Pencils" were impounded and tests done on the pencil leads showed that the majority had been heavily contaminated with lead. The manufacturing plants in China were traced and investigators sent to determine the origin of the contamination. Inquiries soon revealed that several suppliers of pencil leads had been mixing lead compounds with the graphite. This had been an ingenious solution to the problem of disposing of growing stockpiles of now-banned lead compounds that had been destined for use in paint manufacture. At least the Chinese exporters could not be accused of misleading advertising!

The discovery by Donaught Laboratories was hailed in the press and the scientific community. Ron was interviewed by the CBC and an account of the discovery was the lead item in the nationís newspapers. Meanwhile Ron was treated by his doctor with chelating agents to rid his body of the accumulated lead compounds and made a complete recovery.

In solving the mystery of the contaminated pencil leads Ron Leadbeater had finally made his mark. Whenever lead poisoning was suspected Ron and his team were called in to investigate. Before long they became known as the "Lead Beaters", while his mother was proud that her son Ronald had finally lived up to the reputation implicit in the family name.


NOTES by Ben Oostdam:

  • This story would sound even better in Dutch and German, in which the word "pencil" translates, respectively, as "potlood" (pot of lead) and "Bleistifft" (lead rod).

  • The metal "lead" in chemical notation is "Pb", short for the Latin term "plumbum". Thus a "plumber" ("loodgieter" or lead-pourer in Dutch, "plombier" in French) is a person working with lead. Although our use of lead is just about outlawed, we still persist in using "plumber", rather than "PVC-er", which would be a more realistic term.
  • Quotes about Plumbers (the ones I call always quote three times as much as I think it is worth....)

  • pencil sharpeners

    BLO fecit 20071022/3 - stories


  • (animation by
    Rebekah Failla
    and Artie Romero)