About a century ago, when General Motors had first proposed adding lead to gasoline in order to improve performance, scientists were alarmed and urged the government to investigate the public health implications. General Motors stepped up and graciously funded a government bureau to conduct some research, but included a clause saying that it could approve the findings.
The bureau’s report was published amid a media frenzy. It gave tetraethyl lead a clean bill of health, but was met with some skepticism, especially since about 40 of the 49 employees at a Standard Oil plant in New Jersey were recently hospitalized with lead poisoning. At least one died.
General Motors, as well as many other companies around the world, were trying to reduce engine knocking in autos. Many companies had already been selling an ethanol-gasoline blend to reduce knocking, which burned fairly cleanly and was highly effective. However, ethanol couldn’t be patented and offered no viable profit for GM, so they were on the lookout for new additives to use. Marketing tetraethyl lead or TEL under the name “Ethyl” (because lead was already known to be poisonous), GM expected to rake in massive amounts of money.
But Standard Oil, General Motors and the DuPont Corporation, the three companies involved with adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline, knew of it’s dangers.
The first production line in Ohio had already been shut down after two deaths. The plant GM supported jointly with Standard Oil (now known as Exxon Mobil), more than 80 percent of the staff died or suffered severe lead poisoning.
A third plant elsewhere in New Jersey had also seen fatalities. Workers kept hallucinating.
Under pressure, the government organized a conference in Washington, DC in May 1925.
In one corner: Frank Howard, vice-president of the Ethyl Corporation – a joint venture between General Motors and Standard Oil. He called leaded gasoline a “gift of God,” arguing that “continued development of motor fuels is essential in our civilization.”
In the other corner: Dr Alice Hamilton, the country’s foremost authority on lead. She argued leaded gasoline was a chance not worth taking. “Where there is lead,” she said, “some case of lead poisoning sooner or later develops, even under the strictest supervision.”
Hamilton knew that lead had been poisoning people for thousands of years, and was well documented going back as far as the Roman civilization.
So why did the companies push tetraethyl lead instead of safer alternatives that were readily available? That answer is simple: The safer alternatives couldn’t be patented, or their distribution profitably controlled. Tetraethyl lead could.
And what of the scientist who first put lead in petrol?
Thomas Midgley was a renowned chemist and inventor who held over 100 patents in his lifetime, but he’s most notorious for two chemicals which wreaked untold havoc on the environment: leaded gasoline and Freon, the first CFC.
By all accounts he was a genial man, but, as an inventor, his inspirations were cursed. After Tetraethyl lead, his second major contribution to civilization was inventing the chlorofluorocarbon that improved refrigerators, but destroyed the ozone layer.
In middle age, afflicted by polio, Midgley applied his inventor’s mind to lifting his weakened body out of bed. He devised an ingenious system of pulleys and strings. They tangled around his neck, and killed him.
The Amazing Footnote:
The US taxed and then finally banned lead in gasoline as part of clean air legislation. By 1995, leaded fuel accounted for only 0.6% of total gasoline sales.
Two decades after the removal of lead from the nation’s gasoline supply, rates of violent crime started to go down. There are many reasons why this might have happened, but the economist Jessica Reyes had an intriguing thought.
Children’s brains are especially susceptible to chronic lead poisoning. Is it possible that kids who didn’t breathe leaded petrol fumes grew up to commit less violent crime?
Reyes could test her hypothesis: different US states phased out leaded petrol at different times.
By comparing the dates of clean air legislation with subsequent crime data, she concluded that more than half the drop in crime was because of cars switching to unleaded petrol.
Other researchers have found similar links between lead water pipes and urban homicide.
The big takeaway: You can’t trust US corporations to do independent research that may result in findings that will negatively impact their business. For 40 years, all studies of the use of tetraethyl lead were conducted by laboratories and scientists funded by the Ethyl Corporation and General Motors.
Perhaps someday this country will put people before profits. But given our present trajectory, that’s not likely.