How leaded fuel was sold for 100 years, despite knowledge of its health risks

A 1960s gas station in Southern California undergoing restoration.
Enlarge / A 1960s gas station in Southern California undergoing restoration.

FarukUlay | Getty Images

On the frosty morning of December 9, 1921, in Dayton, Ohio, researchers at a General Motors laboratory poured fresh fuel mixture into one of their test engines. Immediately the engine started to run quieter and deliver more power.

The new fuel was tetraethyl lead. With vast profits in sight and very few public health regulations at the time, General Motors Co. introduced gasoline diluted with tetraethyl lead despite the known health risks of lead. They named it “Ethyl” gas.

It has been 100 years since that pivotal day in the development of leaded gasoline. Like a media and environmental historian, I see this anniversary as a time to reflect on the role of public health advocates and environmental journalists in preventing profit-driven tragedies.

Scientists working for General Motors discovered that tetraethyl lead could greatly improve engine efficiency and longevity in the 1920s.
Enlarge / Scientists working for General Motors discovered that tetraethyl lead could greatly improve engine efficiency and longevity in the 1920s.

Lead and death

In the early 1920s, the dangers of lead were well known– even Charles Dickens and Benjamin Franklin had written about the dangers of lead poisoning.

When GM started selling leaded gasoline, public health experts questioned his decision. One called lead a serious threat to public health and another called concentrated tetraethyl lead “malicious and crawling“poison.

General Motors and Standard Oil dismissed the warnings until a disaster struck in October 1924. Two dozen workers at a refinery in Bayway, New Jersey were severely poisoned with lead by an evil GM process. designed. At first they became disoriented, then erupted into a mad fury and collapsed into hysterical laughter. Many had to be locked in straitjackets. Six died and the rest were hospitalized. Around the same time, 11 more workers died and several dozen more were deactivated at similar GM and DuPont factories in the United States.

The news media began to criticize Standard Oil and express their concerns about ethyl gas in articles and cartoons.
Enlarge / The news media began to criticize Standard Oil and express their concerns about ethyl gas in articles and cartoons.

New York Evening Journal via Library of Contress

Fight the media

The attitude of the auto and gas industries towards the media was hostile from the start. At Standard Oil’s first press conference on the Ethyl disaster in 1924, a spokesperson claimed he had no idea what had happened while telling the media that “Nothing should be said about this in the public interest. “

Other facts emerged in the months following the event, and in the spring of 1925, extensive media coverage began to appear, framing the problem as public health versus industrial progress. A New York World article asked Yandell Henderson, a gas warfare expert at Yale University, and GM principal tetraethyl researcher Thomas Midgley if leaded gasoline would poison people. Midgley joked about public health concerns and falsely insisted that leaded gasoline was the only way to increase the potency of the fuel. To demonstrate the negative impacts of leaded fuel, Henderson estimated that 30 tons of lead would fall in dusty rain each year on Fifth Avenue in New York City.

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