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The Secret History of Lead

Jamie Lincoln Kitman / The Nation 20mar00

[ Timeline: 8,500 years of lead, 79 years of leaded gasoline.| References ]

The next time you pull the family barge in for a fill-up, check it out: The gas pumps read "Unleaded." You might reasonably suppose this is because naturally occurring lead has been thoughtfully removed from the gasoline. But you would be wrong. There is no lead in gasoline unless somebody puts it there. And, a little more than seventy-five years ago, some of America's leading corporations--General Motors, Du Pont and Standard Oil of New Jersey (known nowadays as Exxon)--were that somebody. They got together and put lead, a known poison, into gasoline, for profit.

Lead was outlawed as an automotive gasoline additive in this country in 1986--more than sixty years after its introduction--to enable the use of emissions-reducing catalytic converters in cars (which are contaminated and rendered useless by lead) and to address the myriad health and safety concerns that have shadowed the toxic additive from its first, tentative appearance on US roads in the twenties, through a period of international ubiquity only recently ending. Since the virtual disappearance of leaded gas in the United States (it's still sold for use in propeller airplanes), the mean blood-lead level of the American population has declined more than 75 percent. A 1985 EPA study estimated that as many as 5,000 Americans died annually from lead-related heart disease prior to the country's lead phaseout. According to a 1988 report to Congress on childhood lead poisoning in America by the government's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, one can estimate that the blood-lead levels of up to 2 million children were reduced every year to below toxic levels between 1970 and 1987 as leaded gasoline use was reduced. From that report and elsewhere, one can conservatively estimate that a total of about 68 million young children had toxic exposures to lead from gasoline from 1927 to 1987.

* * *

How did lead get into gasoline in the first place? And why is leaded gas still being sold in the Third World, Eastern Europe and elsewhere? Recently uncovered documents from the archives of the aforementioned industrial behemoths and the US government, a new skein of academic research and a careful reading of that long-ago period's historical record, as well as dozens of interviews conducted by The Nation, tell the true story of leaded gasoline, a sad and sordid commercial venture that would tiptoe its way quietly into the black hole of history if the captains of industry were to have their way. But the story must be recounted now. The leaded gas adventurers have profitably polluted the world on a grand scale and, in the process, have provided a model for the asbestos, tobacco, pesticide and nuclear power industries, and other twentieth-century corporate bad actors, for evading clear evidence that their products are harmful by hiding behind the mantle of scientific uncertainty.

This is not just a textbook example of unnecessary environmental degradation, however. Nor is this history important solely as a cautionary retort to those who would doubt the need for aggressive regulation of industry, when commercial interests ask us to sanction genetically modified food on the basis of their own scientific assurances, just as the merchants of lead once did. The leaded gasoline story must also be read as a call to action, for the lead menace lives.


§ the severe health hazards of leaded gasoline were known to its makers and clearly identified by the US public health community more than seventy-five years ago, but were steadfastly denied by the makers, because they couldn't be immediately quantified;

§ other, safer antiknock additives--used to increase gasoline octane and counter engine "knock"--were known and available to oil companies and the makers of lead antiknocks before the lead additive was discovered, but they were covered up and denied, then fought, suppressed and unfairly maligned for decades to follow;

§ the US government was fully apprised of leaded gasoline's potentially hazardous effects and was aware of available alternatives, yet was complicit in the cover-up and even actively assisted the profiteers in spreading the use of leaded gasoline to foreign countries;

§ the benefits of lead antiknock additives were wildly and knowingly overstated in the beginning, and continue to be. Lead is not only bad for the planet and all its life forms, it is actually bad for cars and always was;

§ for more than four decades, all scientific research regarding the health implications of leaded gasoline was underwritten and controlled by the original lead cabal--Du Pont, GM and Standard Oil; such research invariably favored the industry's pro-lead views, but was from the outset fatally flawed; independent scientists who would finally catch up with the earlier work's infirmities and debunk them were--and continue to be--threatened and defamed by the lead interests and their hired hands;

§ confronted in recent years with declining sales in their biggest Western markets, owing to lead phaseouts imposed in the United States and, more recently, Europe, the current sellers of lead additives have successfully stepped up efforts to market their wares in the less-developed world, efforts that persist and have resulted in some countries today placing more lead in their gasoline, per gallon, than was typically used in the West, extra lead that serves no purpose other than profit;

§ faced with lead's demise and their inevitable days of reckoning, these firms have used the extraordinary financial returns that lead additive sales afford to hurriedly fund diversification into less risky, more conventional businesses, while taking a page from the tobacco companies' playbook and simultaneously moving to reorganize their corporate structures to shield ownership and management from liability for blanketing the earth with a deadly heavy metal.

* * *

You can choose whether to smoke, but you can't pick the air you breathe, even if it is contaminated by lead particles from automobile exhaust. Seventy-five years ago, well-known industrialists like GM's Alfred Sloan and Charles Kettering (remembered today for having founded the prestigious Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center) and the powerful brothers Pierre and Irénée du Pont added to their substantial fortunes and did the planet very dirty by disregarding the common-sense truth that no good can come from burning a long-known poison in internal-combustion engines.

The steady emergence of improved methodology and finer, more sensitive measuring equipment has allowed scientists to prove lead's tragic toll with increasing precision. The audacity of today's lead-additive makers' conduct mounts with each new study weighing in against them. Because lead particles in automobile exhaust travel in wind, rain and snow, which know no national boundaries, lead makers and refiners who peddle leaded gasoline knowingly injure not only the local populations using their product but men, mice and fish tens of thousands of miles distant.

* * *

GM and Standard Oil sold their leaded gasoline subsidiary, the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation, to Albemarle Paper in 1962, while Du Pont only cleaned up its act recently, but all hope to leave their leaded gasoline paternity a hushed footnote to their inglorious pasts. The principal maker of lead additive today (the Associated Octel Company of Ellesmere Port, England) and its foremost salesmen (Octel and the Ethyl corporation of Richmond, Virginia) acknowledge what they see as a political reality: Their product will one day be run out of business. But they plan to keep on selling it in the Third World profitably until they can sell it no longer. They continue to deny lead's dangers while overrating its virtues, reprising the central tenets of the lead mythology chartered by GM, Du Pont and Standard lifetimes ago.

These mighty corporations should pay Ethyl and Octel for keeping their old lies alive. They'll need them, in their most up-to-the-minute and media-friendly fashion: Because of the harm caused by leaded gasoline they have been joined to a class-action suit brought in a circuit court in Maryland against the makers of that other product of lead's excruciating toxic reign: lead paint. Along with the makers of lead paint and the lead trade organizations with whom they both once worked in close concert, suppliers and champions of lead gasoline additives--Ethyl, Du Pont and PPG--have been named as defendants in the suit.

Though the number of cases of lead poisoning has been falling nationwide, the lead dust in exhaust spewed by automobiles in the past century will continue to haunt us in this one, coating our roads, buildings and soil, subtly but indefinitely contaminating our homes, belongings and food.

The Problem With Lead

Lead is poison, a potent neurotoxin whose sickening and deadly effects have been known for nearly 3,000 years and written about by historical figures from the Greek poet and physician Nikander and the Roman architect Vitruvius to Benjamin Franklin. Odorless, colorless and tasteless, lead can be detected only through chemical analysis. Unlike such carcinogens and killers as pesticides, most chemicals, waste oils and even radioactive materials, lead does not break down over time. It does not vaporize, and it never disappears.

For this reason, most of the estimated 7 million tons of lead burned in gasoline in the United States in the twentieth century remains--in the soil, air and water and in the bodies of living organisms. Worldwide, it is estimated that modern man's lead exposure is 300 to 500 times greater than background or natural levels. Indeed, a 1983 report by Britain's Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution concluded that lead was dispersed so widely by man in the twentieth century that "it is doubtful whether any part of the earth's surface or any form of life remains uncontaminated by anthropogenic [man-made] lead." While lead from mining, paint, smelting and other sources is still a serious environmental problem, a recent report by the government's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry estimated that the burning of gasoline has accounted for 90 percent of lead placed in the atmosphere since the 1920s. (The magnitude of this fact is placed in relief when one considers the estimate of the US Public Health Service that the associated health costs from a parallel problem--the remaining lead paint in America's older housing--total in the multibillions.)

Classical acute lead poisoning occurs at high levels of exposure, and its symptoms--blindness, brain damage, kidney disease, convulsions and cancer--often leading, of course, to death, are not hard to identify. The effects of pervasive exposure to lower levels of lead are more easily miscredited; lead poisoning has been called an "aping disease" because its symptoms are so frequently those of other known ailments. Children are the first and worst victims of leaded gas; because of their immaturity, they are most susceptible to systemic and neurological injury, including lowered IQs, reading and learning disabilities, impaired hearing, reduced attention span, hyperactivity, behavioral problems and interference with growth. Because they often go undetected for some time, such maladies are particularly insidious. In adults, elevated blood-lead levels are related to hypertension and cardiovascular disease, particularly strokes, heart attacks and premature deaths. Lead exposure before or during pregnancy is especially serious, harming the mother's own body, affecting fetal development and frequently leading to miscarriage. In the eighties the EPA estimated that the health damages from airborne lead cost American society billions each year. In Venezuela, where the state oil company sold only leaded gasoline until 1999, a recent report found 63 percent of newborn children with blood-lead levels in excess of the so-called safe levels promulgated by the US government.

The Search for an Antiknock

thomas midgley, jr. inventor of Leaded Gasoline, Freon, and Chlorofluorocarbons

Thomas Midgley, Jr.

On December 9, 1921, a young engineer named Thomas Midgley Jr., working in the laboratory of the General Motors Research Corporation in Dayton, Ohio, reported to his boss, Charles Kettering, that he'd discovered that tetraethyl lead--a little-known compound of metallic lead and one of the alkyl series, also referred to as lead tetraethyl or TEL--worked to reduce "knock" or "pinging" in internal-combustion engines.

Tetraethyl lead was first discovered by a German chemist in 1854. A technical curiosity, it was not used commercially on account of "its known deadliness." It is highly poisonous, and even casual cumulative contact with it was known to cause hallucinations, difficulty in breathing and, in the worst cases, madness, spasms, palsies, asphyxiation and death. Still unused in 1921, sixty-seven years after its invention, it was not an obvious choice as a gasoline additive.

In the laboratories of Charles Kettering, however, the search for a gasoline additive to cure "knock" had been going on for some years prior to Midgley's rediscovery of TEL. In 1911 Kettering had invented the electric self-starter--a landmark development in automotive history that eliminated dangerous hand-cranking and enabled many Americans (particularly women) to drive for the first time, arguably killing steam and electric cars in the process. This invention would make "Boss" Kettering rich, famous and beloved to a nation falling in love with its wheels. Thanks to the starter, the folksy inventor's new firm, Dayton Engineering Laboratories Company, or DELCO, received its first big order, for $10 million, from the upstart General Motors Corporation, founded only three years earlier by William Crapo Durant.

GM's 1912 Cadillac was equipped with DELCO's self-starter and battery ignition. When customers reported that the engine of this luxury automobile had an alarming tendency to knock--a sharp, metallic sound hinting at damage being done inside the engine--critics blamed Kettering's electrical components.

Kettering was convinced, rightly, that knocking was a function of an engine's fuel rather than ignition problems. When Kettering and his partners sold DELCO to Durant's GM and its new partner--Alfred Sloan's Hyatt Roller Bearings--in 1916, his lab was already engaged in a search for the cure. Following the sale, this work was transferred to his new firm, the Dayton Research Laboratories, where a newly hired assistant, Thomas Midgley, was assigned to study the problem of engine knock.

Stabbing in the dark, Midgley got lucky quickly when he added iodine to the fuel, stopping knock in a test engine and establishing for all time that the malady--premature combustion of the fuel/air mixture--was connected to the explosive qualities of the fuel, what would later be called "octane." Iodine raised octane and cured knock; however, it was corrosive and prohibitively expensive. Inspired by the fundamental breakthrough, Midgley nonetheless carried on with fuel research, testing every substance he could find for antiknock properties, "from melted butter and camphor to ethyl acetate and aluminum chloride." Unfortunately, "most of them had no more effect than spitting in the Great Lakes."

The Antiknock That Got Away

Automotive engineers knew by this time that engines that didn't knock would not only operate more smoothly. They could also be designed to run with higher compression in the cylinders, which would allow more efficient operation, resulting in greater fuel economy, greater power or some harmonious combination of the two. The key was finding a fuel with higher octane. Though octane sufficient for use in high-compression engines had been achievable since 1913 through a process called thermal cracking, the process required added expenditures on plant and equipment, which tightfisted oil refiners didn't relish. The nation's fuel supply remained resolutely low grade, a situation that troubled Kettering.

By limiting allowable compression, low-octane fuel meant cars would be burning more gasoline. Like many visionary engineers, Kettering was enamored of conservation as a first principle. As a businessman, he also shared persistent fears at the time that world oil supplies were running out. Low octane and low compression meant lower gas mileage and more rapid exhaustion of a dwindling fuel supply. Inevitably, demand for new automobiles would fade.

By 1917 Kettering and his staff had trained their octane-boosting sights on ethyl alcohol, also known as grain alcohol (the kind you drink), power alcohol or ethanol. In tests supervised by Kettering and Midgley for the Army Air Corps at Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio, researchers concluded that alcohols were among the best antiknock fuels but were not ideal for aircraft engines unless used as an additive, in a blend with gasoline. This undoubtedly led Kettering to concur with an April 13, 1918, Scientific American report: "It is now definitely established that alcohol can be blended with gasoline to produce a suitable motor fuel."

* * *

The story of TEL's rise, then, is very much the story of the oil companies' and lead interests' war against ethanol as an octane-boosting additive that could be mixed with gasoline or, in their worst nightmare, burned straight as a replacement for gasoline. For more than a hundred years, Big Oil has reckoned ethanol to be fundamentally inimical to its interest, and, viewing its interest narrowly, Big Oil might not be wrong. By contrast, GM's subsequent antipathy to alcohol was a profit-motivated attitude adjustment. Alcohol initially held much fascination for the company, for good reason. Ethanol is always plentiful and easy to make, with a long history in America, not just as a fuel additive but as a pure fuel. The first prototype internal-combustion engine in 1826 used alcohol and turpentine. Prior to the Civil War alcohol was the most widely used illuminating fuel in the country. Indeed, alcohol powered the first engine by the German inventor Nicholas August Otto, father of the four-stroke internal-combustion engines powering our cars today. More important, by the time of Kettering's antiknock inquiry, alcohol was a proven automotive fuel.

As the automobile era picked up speed, scientific journals were filled with references to alcohol. Tests in 1906 by the Department of Agriculture underscored its power and economy benefits. In 1907 and 1908 the US Geological Survey and the Navy performed 2,000 tests on alcohol and gasoline engines in Norfolk, Virginia, and St. Louis, concluding that higher engine compression could be achieved with alcohol than with gasoline. They noted a complete absence of smoke and disagreeable odors.

Despite many attempts by Big Oil to stifle its home-grown competitor (one time-honored gambit: lobbying legislators to pass punitive taxation thwarting alcohol's economic viability), power alcohol would number among its adherents several highly regarded inventors and scientists, including Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. Henry Ford built his very first car to run on what he called farm alcohol. As late as 1925, after the advent of TEL, the high priest of American industry would predict in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor that ethanol--"fuel from vegetation"--would be the "fuel of the future." Four years later, early examples of his Model A car would be equipped with a dashboard knob to adjust its carburetor to run on gasoline or alcohol.

* * *

Ethanol made a lot of sense to a practical Ohio farm boy like Kettering. It was renewable, made from surplus crops and crop waste, and nontoxic. It delivered higher octane than gasoline (though it contained less power per gallon), and it burned more cleanly. By 1920, as Kettering was aware, a US Naval Committee had concluded that alcohol-gasoline blends "withstand high compression without producing knock."

Higher compression was, after all, what the GM men were after. In February 1920, shortly after joining General Motors' employ, Thomas Midgley filed a patent application for a blend of alcohol and cracked (olefin) gasoline, as an antiknock fuel. Later that month K.W. Zimmerschied of GM's New York headquarters wrote Kettering, observing that foreign use of alcohol fuel "is getting more serious every day in connection with export cars, and anything we can do toward building our carburetors so they can be easily adapted to alcohol will be appreciated by all." Kettering assured him that adaptation for alcohol fuel "is a thing which is very readily taken care of" by exchanging metal carburetor floats for lacquered cork ones. GM was concerned (albeit temporarily) about an imminent disruption in oil supply, and alcohol-powered cars could keep its factories open. An internal GM report that year stated ominously, "This year will see the maximum production of petroleum that this country will ever know."

Ethanol on the March

In October 1921, less than two months before he hatched leaded gasoline, Thomas Midgley drove a high-compression-engined car from Dayton to a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Indianapolis, using a gasoline-ethanol blended fuel containing 30 percent alcohol. "Alcohol," he told the assembled engineers, "has tremendous advantages and minor disadvantages." The benefits included "clean burning and freedom from any carbon deposit...[and] tremendously high compression under which alcohol will operate without knocking.... Because of the possible high compression, the available horsepower is much greater with alcohol than with gasoline."

After four years' study, GM researchers had proved it: Ethanol was the additive of choice. Their estimation would be confirmed by others. In the thirties, after leaded gasoline was introduced to the United States but before it dominated in Europe, two successful English brands of gas--Cleveland Discoll and Kool Motor--contained 30 percent and 16 percent alcohol, respectively. As it happened, Cleveland Discoll was part-owned by Ethyl's half-owner, Standard Oil of New Jersey (Kool Motor was owned by the US oil company Cities Service, today Citgo). While their US colleagues were slandering alcohol fuels before Congressional committees in the thirties, Standard Oil's men in England would claim, in advertising pamphlets, that ethanol-laced, lead-free petrol offered "the most perfect motor fuel the world has ever known," providing "extra power, extra economy, and extra efficiency."

For a change, the oil companies spoke the truth. Today, in the postlead era, ethanol is routinely blended into gasoline to raise octane and as an emissions-reducing oxygenate. Race cars often run on pure ethanol. DaimlerChrysler and Ford earn credits allowing them to sell additional gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles by engineering so-called flex-vehicles that will run on clean-burning E85, an 85 percent ethanol/gasoline blend. GM helped underwrite the 1999 Ethanol Vehicle Challenge, which saw college engineering students easily converting standard GM pickup trucks to run on E85, producing hundreds of bonus horsepower. Ethanol's technical difficulties have been surmounted and its cost--as an octane-boosting additive rather than a pure fuel--is competitive with the industry's preferred octane-boosting oxygenate, MTBE, a petroleum-derived suspected carcinogen with an affinity for groundwater that was recently outlawed in California. With MTBE's fall from grace, many refiners--including Getty, which took out a full-page ad in the New York Times congratulating itself for doing so--returned to ethanol long after it was first developed as a clean-burning octane booster.


With recent reports linking high blood levels of lead to juvenile delinquency, the lead story grows. In our May 15 issue we ran a number of letters commenting on Jamie Lincoln Kitman's "The Secret History of Lead" [March 20]. Additional communications since then prompt a further editorial comment. The original lengthy manuscript contained footnotes, scrupulously documenting the sources of all quotations, facts, analyses. These were used for fact-checking, but as an editorial decision these citations were omitted from the published article for reasons of style and length, although the names of primary sources consulted were listed in the author's note. The editors regret the omission of the full citations to the articles from which Kitman drew important information and would like to give credit to those authors and articles and enable those interested to read them. Kitman joins us in gratefully acknowledging the pathbreaking work that preceded his article.

David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, "A 'Gift of God?' The Public Health Controversy Over Leaded Gasoline During the 1920s," American Journal of Public Health, April 1985.

Articles and papers by Alan P. Loeb on "Sloanism," Ethyl's divestments and the Kehoe rule: "Birth of the Kettering Doctrine: Fordism, Sloanism and the Discovery of Tetraethyl Lead," Business and Economic History, Fall 1995; "Surmountable Obstacles to the Adoption of Emissions Trading Programs: The Historical Perspective"; and "Birth of the Kehoe Rule: Implications of the Surgeon General's Review of Tetraethyl Lead, 1925-1926."

William Kovarik, "Henry Ford, Charles Kettering and the 'Fuel of the Future,'" Automotive History Review, Spring 1998;

William Graebner, "Hegemony Through Science: Information Engineering and Lead Toxicology, 1925-1965," in David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, eds., Dying for Work: Workers' Safety and Health in Twentieth-Century America, Indiana University Press, 1989.

Jerome O. Nriagu, "Clair Patterson and Robert Kehoe's Paradigm of 'Show Me the Data' on Environmental Lead Poisoning."

Jerome O. Nriagu, "Automotive Lead Pollution: Clair Patterson's Role in Stopping It," in Cliff Davidson, ed., Clean Hands: Clair Patterson's Crusade Against Environmental Lead Contamination, Nova Science Publishers, 1999.

H.L. Needleman, "Clair Patterson and Robert Kehoe: Two Points of View of Lead Toxicity," Environmental Research, Section A, 1998.

George B. Kauffman, "Midgley: Saint or Serpent?" Chemtech, December 1989.




6500 BC. Lead discovered in Turkey.
3000 BC. First significant production of lead.
500 BC-300 AD. Roman lead smelting produces dangerous emissions.
100 BC. Greek physicians give clinical description of lead poisoning.


1854. Tetraethyl lead (TEL) discovered by German chemist.
1887. US medical authorities diagnose childhood lead poisoning.


1904. Child lead poisoning linked to lead-based paints.
1909. France, Belgium and Austria ban white-lead interior paint.


1914. Pediatric lead-paint poisoning death from eating crib paint is described.
1916. GM and United Motors buy Charles Kettering's DELCO, which experiments with preventing engine knock.
1918. Scientific American reports alcohol-gasoline blend can be used as motor fuel.
1918. Thomas Midgley patents benzene/gasoline blend as antiknock.
1919. Du Pont interests buy additional shares of GM.
1919. London General Omnibus Co. experiments prove ethanol is antiknock.
1919. Kettering gives Midgley two weeks to find antiknock.


1920. US Naval Committee approves alcohol-gasoline blend.
1920. Midgley patents alcohol and cracked (olefin) gasoline blend.
1920. Du Pont now owns more than 35 percent of GM.
1921. National Lead Company admits lead is a poison.
1921. Midgley demonstrates car powered by 30 percent alcohol-gasoline blend.
1921. Midgley discovers that tetraethyl lead (TEL) curbs engine knock.
1922. League of Nations bans white-lead interior paint; US declines to adopt.
1922. GM contracts Du Pont to supply TEL.
1922. Public Health Service (PHS) warns of dangers of lead production, leaded fuel.
1922. Scientists express concern to Midgley over TEL in gas.
1923. Midgley repairs to Miami to recover from lead poisoning.
1923. Leaded gasoline goes on sale in selected markets.
1923. GM Chemical Corporation established to produce TEL.
1923. First Du Pont TEL plant opens at Deepwater, NJ.
1923. First TEL-poisoning deaths occur at Deepwater plant.
1923. GM contracts toothless Bureau of Mines to test TEL.
1924. Two GM employees die of lead poisoning at TEL plant. Dr. Robert Kehoe hired to study hazards at plant. Begins career as lead's lead apologist.
1924. GM forms medical committee to examine lead threat.
1924. Standard Oil begins production of TEL at Bayway plant.
1924. GM and Standard Oil of NJ form Ethyl Gasoline Corp.
1924. GM medical committee delivers negative and highly cautionary report on TEL. Irénée du Pont "not disturbed."
1924. Five workers die of lead poisoning at Bayway plant.
1924. NY Board of Health bans sales of TEL-enhanced gasoline.
1924. Bureau of Mines study gives TEL clean bill of health.
1924. Standard Oil suspends sale of leaded gasoline in NJ.
1924. Officials of GM, Standard, Du Pont request Surgeon General hold public hearings.
1925. Forgetting ethanol, Midgley proclaims TEL is only viable antiknock.
1925. Yale's Yandell Henderson warns of danger from breathing lead dust in auto emissions.
1925. Du Pont opens second TEL plant.
1925. Ethyl withdraws its gasoline from market until Surgeon General's conference.
1925. SG's conference calls for expert committee to study TEL.
1926. Committee calls for regulating sales of Ethyl and for further study by PHS, funded by Congress (studies never funded).
1926. Signs in gas stations: "Ethyl is back."
1926. Du Pont reopens Deepwater TEL plant.
1926. GM President Sloan expresses concern about valve corrosion with Ethyl.
1927. GM quells rebellion of dealers against use of lead fuel.
1928. Lead Industries Association formed to combat "undesirable publicity."
1928. Surgeon General tells NYC there are "no good grounds" to ban TEL.


1930. Ethyl Export is founded in England to sell leaded gas overseas.
1932. British Medical Journal cites "slow, subtle insidious saturation of the system by infinitesimal doses of lead extending over long period of time."
1933. USDA, naval researchers find Ethyl and 20 percent ethanol blend equal in performance.
1934. Ethyl and I.G. Farben form Ethyl GmbH to make leaded airplane fuel.
1936. 90 percent of gasoline sold in US contains Ethyl.
1938. Ethyl Export becomes Associated Ethyl Company.


1943. Report concludes eating lead paint chips causes physical and neurological disorders, behavior, learning and intelligence problems in children.
1948. US files antitrust suit against Du Pont to break up "largest single concentration of power in the United States." Main target is Du Pont's $560 million investment in GM.


1950. Dr. Arie Haagen-Smit identifies causes of smog in LA as interaction of hydrocarbons (cars largest source) and oxides of nitrogen.
1952. Justice Dept antitrust suit against Du Pont focuses on anticompetitve association between it, GM, Standard Oil and Ethyl.
1954. Octel begins TEL production in England.
Mid-1950s. Auto makers pact stifles development of emissions-control devices.
1959. PHS approves Ethyl request to increase lead in gasoline. PHS regrets that SG committee's 1926 call for studies was not followed up.


1961. Ethyl and Associated Octel compete for overseas trade.
1962. Ethyl sold to Albemarle Paper Co. in $200 million leveraged buyout partly financed by sellers, GM and Standard Oil.
1965. Clair Patterson's study "Contaminated and Natural Lead Environments of Man" offers first hard proof that high lead levels in industrial nations are man-made and endemic.
1966. Senate Public Works Committee holds first hearings on air pollution.
1969. Auto makers settle suit by Justice Department for conspiracy to delay the development of pollution-control devices.


1970. Passage of Clean Air Act.
1970. To avert threatened legislation to restrict use of internal-combustion engine, GM agrees to add catalytic converters to meet Clean Air law. Active element of converters--platinum--is contaminated by leaded gas, presaging its demise.
1971. Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act passed.
1972. EPA gives notice of proposed phaseout of lead in gasoline. In first use of Freedom of Information Act, Ethyl sues EPA.
1973. EPA promulgates lead phaseout in gasoline but delays setting standards. When standards are set, EPA sued by Ethyl.
1976. EPA standards upheld by US Court of Appeals, and Supreme Court refuses to hear appeal.
1978. Energy Tax Act creates ethanol tax incentive, expanding use of ethanol in US.


1980. National Academy of Sciences calls leaded gasoline greatest source of atmospheric lead pollution.
1980. National Security Act of 1980 mandates all gasoline be blended with a minimum of 10 percent grain alcohol--"gasohol." Subsequently scuttled by Reagan Administration.
1980. Gasohol Competition Act passed by Congress to stop oil companies' discrimination against sales of gasohol at their pumps.
1980. Ethyl reports it has expanded its overseas business tenfold between 1964 and 1981; profits help fund diversification.
1981. Vice President George Bush's Task Force on Regulatory Relief proposes to relax or eliminate US leaded gas phaseout.
1982. Reagan Administration reverses opposition to lead phaseout.
1983. Between 1976 and 1980, EPA reports, amount of lead consumed in gasoline dropped 50 percent. Blood-lead levels dropped 37 percent. Benefits of phaseout exceed costs by $700 million.
1986. Primary phaseout of leaded gas in US completed.


1992. Rio environmental summit calls for worldwide lead phaseout.
1994. Study shows that US blood-lead levels declined by 78 percent from 1978 to 1991.
1994. American Academy of Pediatrics study shows direct relationship between lead exposure and IQ deficits in children.
1996. World Bank calls for world phaseout of leaded gasoline.


2000. European Union bans leaded gasoline.

Lead Kills Cars, Too

While they were busy glossing over its perilous shortcomings for the public health, tetraethyl lead's boosters almost forgot that their "gift of God" posed some serious problems for cars. Instead of benefitting, engines were getting destroyed by lead deposits. GM researchers had noted this early in TEL's life, but Charles Kettering was anxious to get the new product to market. Problems, he argued, could be worked out with real-life experience to guide them. But necessary changes were slow in coming.

In May 1926, three years after leaded fuel went on sale, GM's Alfred Sloan wrote Ethyl's new president, Earle Webb, to express concern that valve corrosion with Ethyl gas was so bad after 2,000-3,000 miles that it rendered cars "inoperative." Rather late in the day, one would have thought, he urged further development of the product. Referring to Ethyl's decision to re-enter the market, he wrote, "Now that we are back in again and are considering pushing the sale [of Ethyl] to the utmost, I think we ought to be concerned with this question."

So the additive that Standard, GM, Du Pont and the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation defended so vigorously before the Surgeon General and the nation wasn't even any good yet--it junked people's second-largest investment, after their homes. Incredibly, in spite of the near-magical claims being made for TEL, GM's own car divisions were at this very time bitterly resisting engine modifications to take advantage of it. In fact, GM's Buick, Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Oakland and Cadillac divisions would not recommend it to their customers until 1927, when they circulated bulletins to their dealers calling on them to withdraw any objections to leaded fuel. This was six years after TEL's invention and a full year and a half after a fractious national debate on TEL at the high-profile Public Health Service conference in Washington. Tellingly, support for TEL was forever lacking in the Society of Automotive Engineers Journal, the automotive engineering community's leading organ.

The damaging effects to which Sloan referred necessitated the introduction of chemical "scavengers," which would cause the residue of the spent ethyl fluid to leave the engine along with the car's exhaust gases, thus preventing lead buildup. After a little trial-and-error experimentation proved the destructiveness of chlorine, ethylene dibromide (EDB), a byproduct of bromine invented by Dow Chemical in the twenties, was selected as the scavenger of choice.

Proving the old maxim that you only make things worse when you tell a lie, Ethyl's adoption of EDB and its widespread use have created several waves of secondary environmental disaster. In more recent times, EDB combustion has been linked to halogenated dibenzo-p-dioxins and dibenzofurans in exhaust, believed to be cancer risks. Also, when EDB is burned in the engine, it creates methyl bromide, which as a component of automobile exhaust the World Meteorological Organization has termed one of "three potentially major sources of atmospheric methyl bromide," which harms the ozone layer.

With the eventual demise of the US market for leaded fuel written on the wall, Ethyl had to find a new market for its lead scavenger EDB, and in 1972 it did--as a pesticide. Twelve years later, EDB would be banned by the EPA in this application following a 1974 finding that it was a powerful cancer-causing agent in animals; a 1977 finding of "strong evidence" that it caused cancer in humans; and a 1981 determination that it was "a potent mutagen"--a carcinogen with especially damaging consequences for human reproductive systems, powerful enough that it should be removed immediately from the food chain. This was bad news, as the United States was by now putting 20 million pounds of EDB into its soils annually, and it had begun to show up in cake mixes and cereal. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would also act to restrict EDB exposure, and the EPA would cite its reduction in the atmosphere as an additional benefit of the leaded gasoline phaseout.

Today the mechanical benefits of unleaded gasoline are obvious. Ever wonder why your new car goes longer than your old one between spark-plug changes? Or why exhaust systems last longer? Or why oil changes don't need to be as frequent? Try unleaded fuel. In a report delivered to the Society of Automotive Engineers, lead-free fuel was shown to significantly reduce engine rusting, piston-ring wear and sludge and varnish deposits, as well as to reduce camshaft wear. In 1985 an EPA report concluded that reduced lead levels reduced piston-ring and cylinder-bore wear, preventing engine failure and improving fuel economy. Estimated maintenance savings exceeded the maintenance costs associated with recession of exhaust valves, which is caused by the use of unleaded gasoline.

Gary Smith, an English Ford engineer working in the area of fuel economy and quality/vehicle/environmental engineering, told The Nation: "The higher the lead content, the more it messes the engine oil up, and we wanted to get longer intervals between engine oil changes, so that's a negative for lead as well.... [The scavengers used in leaded gasoline] or combustion of anything with chlorine or bromine will make hydrochloric and hydrobromic acid, so the actual muffler systems get corroded. They end up on--and affect--the spark plugs. Because we're trying to keep warranty costs down and [lower] costs for customers, we found ourselves going away from lead."


"Do you see that village over there?" Bob Larbey asked, pointing out the minicab window. "That's where Louise Woodward grew up. That's where she lives." It was quite an admission.

You see, Larbey was the soon-to-retire manager of external affairs for the Associated Octel Company, the world's largest makers of tetraethyl lead (TEL), the gasoline antiknock additive outlawed in the West but still sold in the Third World. His company's last remaining lead factory and Shell Oil's closely adjacent Stanlow Refinery, located in Ellesemere Port alongside the Manchester Ship Canal, outside Liverpool, are, for better or worse, Louise Woodward's next-door neighbors.

Putting aside one's free-floating interest in the lives of the rich and famous (Woodward attained notoriety, you will recall, when she was charged in 1997 with murdering a Massachusetts infant in her care), Larbey's revelation interested me for another reason. In the preceding months, I had been reading up on lead and had learned that a vein of scientific research five miles wide and fifty-six years old had linked childhood lead exposure to a variety of learning difficulties and personality disorders, among them violent, irrational and aggressive behavior.

"Wow," I said to Larbey and Richard Bremner, a correspondent for England's Car magazine. Like me, Bremner is a starry-eyed old-car buff. We're all for safety and low emissions, but we love cars, especially older ones. Following industry pronouncements and reading car magazines religiously, we'd been led to believe--I in America in the eighties, when lead was removed from gasoline, and he only recently, as Britain contemplated its phaseout--that the removal of lead from fuel would damage the engines of our old cars. Frankly, I'd begun wondering about the honesty of the additive makers and the oil industry. Having run more than my fair share of venerable machinery in the fourteen-year period since the US ban went into effect, I hadn't had a single recessed valve seat--what I'd been led to fear--or any other engine problem to report.

One is tempted to describe the Octel plant, which rends the gray and rainy Mersey sky in a most unharmonious fashion, as Victorian, except that it was built in 1948. After installing ourselves in jumpsuits and rubber boots, which lent special moment to the occasion, we were given two sets of gloves, two pairs of goggles and brand-new gas masks, which lent an air of terror. I couldn't help recalling the sickening deaths and illnesses of hundreds of TEL workers in the twenties in New Jersey, in plants run by Standard Oil and Du Pont. This was bad stuff. Gripped by violent bursts of insanity, the afflicted would imagine they were being persecuted by butterflies and other winged insects before expiring, their bodies having turned black and blue.

As we toured the plant with Larbey and an Octel worker, Bob Pedley, my thoughts were instantly fogged by the significance of this place, the largest lead additive factory in the world and the last in the West. Octel continues to supply TEL to large parts of the Third World from this site, by tanker and seaborne container, as if the world medical establishment, the UN, the EU, the EPA and the World Bank (I could go on) hadn't come out strongly against the stuff. So TEL manufacturing experts will forgive me now if I can no longer remember the exact sequence of what we saw, or even what we were seeing. But I will never forget our first sight of huge caldrons of sodium being electrically heated to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, to remove chlorine. ("If the chlorine escapes, put your gas mask on and start running," someone had told me. Or had it simply been "start running"? I hoped not to find out.) The sodium was then blended, I think, with molten lead made from huge ingots, and this sodium/lead mixture was mixed with ethyl chloride to make TEL. Added at this point would be the ethylene dibromide (EDB), the "scavenger" material that causes the lead to exit the car's exhaust. EDB, I'd learned earlier, is another well-documented carcinogen. High up one of the exterior walls of the tower where the sodium/lead mixture is mixed with ethyl chloride were enormous tanks. In the event of a chemical overreaction--"It gets away from us sometimes," Larbey said with a chuckle--so-called burst disks rupture, allowing the empty tanks to fill with the toxic overbrew.

We were about to enter the building when a guard asked Larbey who we were. He told him and the guard advised that the burst disks had just ruptured. Perhaps we wouldn't be going in, after all. "Hey, Richard," I said to my friend. "Would you stop turning into a butterfly?" On our way out of the factory offices on this gray, rainy day, I noticed a sign listing "incidents" for the year: 486. No fatalities.

On the Virgin train back to London, Bremner and I spoke with Megan Harding, a New Zealander in Britain who represented APS Chemicals in a tentative joint venture with Octel to market Valvemaster, a phosphorus-based additive said to prevent the dreaded valve-seat recession. Harding explained that DMA-4, as Valvemaster was formerly known, was originally discovered as a detergent additive by Du Pont in the sixties and was apparently once the world's leading gasoline additive. The unexpected protection it offered against valve-seat recession was discovered in the seventies, with more than a billion gallons of fuel bulk-treated since the advent of unleaded gas. (Valvemaster faces a sales ceiling, however, for, like lead, phosphorus fouls catalytic converters.) In one of the press handouts Harding gave us, Octel CEO Dennis Kerrison claims that Valvemaster is "proven, reliable, cost-effective." The next time I find myself in Ellesmere Port I plan to ask the man, If all that's true, why then haven't you stopped selling lead? The world--and Louise Woodward--have a right to know.

Ethyl-Octel Family Tree

The Ethyl Gasoline Corporation, a joint venture of GM and Standard Oil, founded Ethyl Export in England in 1930 to handle foreign business. Additional outposts were opened in Italy, France and Germany, and in 1938 Ethyl Export became the Associated Ethyl Company. The company was formed to control TEL production throughout Britain and France, and its primary goal was to expand the use of TEL, which it did by the clever expedient of making shareholders out of six leading oil companies--BP, Shell, Esso (as Standard Oil of New Jersey was known in England), Mobil, Chevron and Texaco--as well as General Motors. The Third World market fell in line after World War II.

In 1961 Europe's Associated Ethyl changed its name to Associated Octel Company Limited, reflecting the fact that Ethyl and Octel were now competitors for European and Latin American business. In 1962 Ethyl was sold by GM and Standard Oil to the Gottwald family of Richmond, Virginia, owners of Albemarle Paper, who continue to trade in TEL from their headquarters in Richmond. Other US competitors--Du Pont, Nalco and PPG--have wound down their TEL businesses in recent years.

After World War II Octel grew to become one of the world's largest TEL suppliers. Today, on the outskirts of Liverpool, England, it operates one of only three TEL manufacturing facilities remaining in the world--the others are in Germany and Russia. Octel, which supplies Ethyl with all of its lead under long-term agreement subject to a recent decree settling FTC price-fixing charges, now supplies 80 percent of the world's TEL.

In 1989 Octel was sold to Great Lakes Chemical of West Lafayette, Indiana, makers of bromine and brominated chemicals, including EDB, the chemical scavengers used in ethyl gasoline to clear lead deposits from engines. In 1997 Great Lakes Chemicals spun off Octel into a separate company, which in 1998 was sold for $430 million to a highly leveraged management team led by Octel's managing director (now CEO), Dennis Kerrison.

Leaded Gasoline, Freon, and Chlorofluorocarbons

Mr. Thomas Midgley Jr.,  Inventor

Jamie Lincoln Kitman / The Nation 20mar00

Born in 1889 in Beaver Falls, Pennsylvania, Thomas Midgley Jr. was a mechanical engineer with a self-taught knowledge of chemistry and a fondness for strong drink. Though his aptitude would lead the chemical industry to honor him on several occasions during his lifetime, many today might wish he'd never picked up a beaker. In addition to his work on leaded gasoline, this holder of 117 patents memorably discovered the refrigerant dichlorodifluoromethane -- trademarked by his employer, General Motors, as Freon. If you count his discovery of the related family of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), used in aerosol spray propellants, foam for insulation, bedding, packing, solvents, pesticides, defoliants and cleaners, Midgley can truly be said to have left his mark on the world. (Ozone-burning CFCs were banned by the EPA in 1978, leaded gas in 1986.) Often overlooked is his work with Kettering during World War I on a flying bomb, the world's first cruise missile.

Years after his captivating freestyle tetraethyl lead demonstrations, Midgley demonstrated the nontoxicity and nonflammability of Freon by filling his lungs with the vapor, exhaling and extinguishing a lit candle. His final years with GM were devoted to pure research into rubber. When Midgley's inquiries proved unprofitable, GM cut him loose. He died at the age of 55 after four years of paralysis, allegedly caused by polio. An obituary in Time reported that he succumbed to accidental strangulation "by a self-devised harness for getting in and out of bed." Charles Kettering called him "the greatest discovery I ever made."



Charles "Boss" Kettering. 1876-1958. Inventor of electric self-starter, later head of General Motors' research division; major GM shareholder. Popular public speaker ("The greatest salesman of science this country has ever known"--Time), with more than 2,000 speeches and numerous articles to his name. Championed leaded gas before public and complaisant government, abandoning superior but less profitable additive--ethanol--he had earlier praised.


Thomas Midgley Jr. 1889-1944. Mechanical engineer, self-taught chemist, longtime Kettering "go to" man, "the father of Ethyl gas." Stumbled on tetraethyl lead (TEL) additive in 1921, defended its safety to government. Alerted Kettering to immense profits to be made in leaded gasoline. Other contributions to better living through chemistry: Invented Freon and related family of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in pesticides, plastics and propellants; later banned by EPA.


Pierre (1870-1954) and Irénée (1877-1963) du Pont. Scions of 200-year-old family-explosives business; used windfall profits made selling gunpowder during World War I to purchase a controlling interest in General Motors. Pierre installed as GM president; Irénée as head of Du Pont. Their firms productionized TEL and, separately and together with Standard Oil of New Jersey, earned royalties on gasoline sold around the world between 1924 and 1992. Ignored the dangers of TEL production while hundreds died or suffered poisoning at their factories; misled press and public as to nature of hazard posed by lead gasoline. Aided Nazi war effort in pacts with German chemical giant I.G. Farben.


Dr. Robert Kehoe. 1893-1992. Toxicologist, chief medical consultant to Ethyl Gasoline Corporation; leading apologist for its leaded gasoline additive. Director, Kettering Laboratory, University of Cincinnati, founded with gift from GM, Du Pont and Ethyl. Came to prominence at 1925 Surgeon General's hearing on tetraethyl lead, claiming unique expertise; for next forty years point man of GM/Standard Oil/Du Pont monopoly on lead research. Central belief, later debunked: All planetary life forms carry heavy natural lead burden. Proponent of practice of perpetually obfuscating scientific data that question safety of lead, setting pattern for other polluting industries and makers of hazardous products opposed to regulation. In 1966 tells Muskie Clean Air subcommittee: "I would simply say that in developing information on this subject [leaded gasoline], I have had a greater responsibility than any other persons in this country."


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