The Trash Blog

The Story of Leaded Gasoline

This may be a bit far afield for the Trash Blog, but it’s an interesting story and it concerns a waste product, so here we go:

Using tetraethyl lead as an additive in gasoline was the discovery of a General Motors employee named Thomas Midgley Jr., who’s other inventions include using chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as refrigerants and the harness contraption that accidentally strangled him at the age of 55. By all accounts he was brilliant.

Prior to tetraethyl lead additives, gasoline had a tendancy to create engine knock (the premature ignition of fuel). Midgley discovered that tetraethyl lead was the perfect gasoline additive because it made engines run smoothly and was dirt cheap. Unfortunately, as was known at the time, tetraethyl lead is toxic.

Ethyl Gasoline Ad 2In 1922 the U.S. Surgeon General asked the chairman of the board of DuPont (with whom General Motors had contracted to supply tetraethyl lead) if tetraethyl lead was safe. Midgley responded for DuPont that although he didn’t have any actual expiremental data, “the average street will probably be so free from lead that it will be impossible to detect it or its absorption.” In addition to being a genius, he was also an optimist.

Leaded gasoline went on sale in 1923. At first, the biggest issues were on the manufacturing side: in 1924 five workers died in the production of tetraethyl lead. Although their symptoms included those typical of lead poisoning (muscle spasms, writhing, delusions, and violent behavior) a manager listed the explanation of their deaths as: “These men probably went insanse becasue they worked too hard.”

At a press conference at the offices of the Standard Oil Company, Midgley demonstrated that tetraethyl lead was harmless in small doses by rubbing some on his hands. The same day, the New York City Board of Health banned ethyl gasoline. Several other cities were quick to follow suit. The U.S. Bureau of Mines investigated the effects of leaded gasoline exhaust by exposing over 100 types of animals for 3 to 6 hours every day for eight months. The animals did not drop dead, and the Bureau of Mines concluded “The danger of sufficient lead accumulation in the streets…was seemingly remote.”

Ethyl Gasoline AdMany scientists were not convinced: “It seems more likely that the conditions will grow worse so gradually and the development of lead poisoning will come on so insidiously (for this is the nature of the disease) that leaded gasoline will be in nearly universal use and large numbers of cars will have been sold that can run only on that fuel before the public and the Government awaken to the situation.” This from a Yale professor of Physiology named Yandell Henderson in 1925. The dean the Harvard School of Public Health called the Bureau of Mines report “half-baked.” Another Harvard professor said that the backers of leaded gasoline were “nothing but murderers.”

Senior executives at Standard Oil called tetraethyl lead “a gift from God.” Throughout the next fifty years the industry continued to claim that leaded gasoline didn’t add much to atmospheric levels of lead, that lead in the air didn’t migrate into human blood, and that low levels of lead in human blood were not toxic, but natural.

It took more than forty years before the U.S. government began to regulate leaded gasoline out of the country. The lead content of gasoline decreased by 99.8% from 1976 to 1990 and the Deparment of Health and Human Services found a 78% drop in human blood-lead levels during the same period. The current U.S. medical threshold for ‘safe’ blood-lead levels is below 10 micrograms per deciliter of blood. Blood levels were higher than this in nearly 78% of children between 1 and 5 years old between 1976 and 1980. The percentage dropped to 4.4 between 1991 and 1994. The EPA put a full ban on leaded gasoline for highway vehicles in 1995.

Sadly, I don’t find it shocking the knowledge of the toxicity of leaded gasoline was known (at least surmised) as early as 1925. Slow poisoning is something we seem very happy to accept in return for convenience or profit.

Leaded Gasoline ADNote: much of the information in this post came from research done by Peter Dauvergne, published in The Shadows of Consumption: Consequences for the Global Environment.

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This entry was written by Philip and published on June 6, 2014 at 12:13 am. It’s filed under Businesses, Environmental Justice, History and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “The Story of Leaded Gasoline

  1. Uncle Chris on said:

    “Unfortunately, as was known at the time, tetraethyl lead is toxic.”

    Somehow this reminds me of Proposition 65 in California.

    This is a statute, initiated by the voters of California and enacted in 1986, that requires businesses to notify Californians about toxic chemicals in the products they purchase. Theoretically, by providing this information, Proposition 65 allows Californians to make informed decisions about protecting themselves from exposure to these chemicals.

    The law requires that the State keep a list, and update it each year, of chemicals that may cause cancer, birth defects, or other reproductive harm. However, as one familiar with California might surmise, the list of these chemicals has grown to nearly 1,000 items over the course of the past 28 years. Consequently, there is hardly a product produced that does not contain at least one of these substances in sufficient quantity to mandate the attachment of a “Proposition 65 warning label” in the Nirvana that Californians seem always interested in achieving.

    Further, the law allows any citizen to sue in order to enforce its provisions. There is evidence that such suits are clogging California’s court systems because of the hundreds that are litigated each year.

    The law also requires that settlements associated with such cases be made public. From this we know that Proposition 65 has been a boon to attorneys, who, in 2008, collected over three times in fees for their efforts on behalf of this law in 2008 than what was levied in civil penalties against the miscreants in that year.

    The ubiquity of the “Proposition 65 warnings” now in California renders the statute practically useless, in the minds of many. Instead of warning of the most egregious and concentrated contaminants, such labels are now attached to practically all products now sold in California.

    While the underlying intentions are, as usual, pure as the driven snow, the implementation in this case, as in so many other similar ones, reminds one of a quote from Churchill:

    “If you have ten thousand regulations you destroy all respect for the law.”

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