Thomas Midgley was a chemist and inventor who held over one hundred patents. What he is best known for—and no one I have asked has heard of him, so I’m not sure how well known he is—is affecting the lives of everyone on the planet… everywhere… and not in a good way. Many have died.
In Cold Justice, Stosh asks Spencer what he’s going to do if Chicago passes its ban on leaded fuel. Spencer’s baby-blue ’67 Mustang drinks leaded fuel. If that happens, he’ll have to buy gas in the suburbs. But the likelihood of that bill passing is low. Over two thousand gas station owners wouldn’t be happy. New York city had tried the same ban in the mid-seventies and the courts overturned it.
It all started in 1921. With a degree in mechanical engineering, Midgley went to work for Dayton Research Labs, a subsidiary of General Motors (GM). He was assigned the job of solving the problem of knocking in auto engines and realized he needed an additive. He started with iodine, thinking that the red dye would absorb heat, and worked his way through the periodic table. The elements had no effect… until he tried lead, or specifically, tetraethyl lead (TEL). TEL, a highly toxic compound discovered in 1854, solved the knocking problem. TEL was described in 1922 by a Du Pont executive as “a colorless liquid of sweetish odor, very poisonous if absorbed through the skin, resulting in lead poisoning almost immediately.” (Smithsonian) People who knew better later denied they knew TEL was poisonous.
The oddity here was that GM had already been selling an ethanol gasoline blend which burned relatively clean and reduced the knocking substantially. The problem was that it couldn’t be patented, so GM couldn’t make any money from it—perhaps not so odd after all. So they sought an additive that had dollar signs attached to it. Unfortunately, the dollar signs were also good for the morticians. They called their new money maker Ethyl. I have memories as a kid of my dad saying, “Fill ‘er up with ethyl.” They couldn’t call it lead… after all, that was already known to be poisonous.
In 1923, GM started the General Motors Chemical Company, mainly to produce TEL. Guess who was named vice president. Many doctors and the US Surgeon General were concerned about the health effects of TEL, but profits trumped their concerns. When workers at the GM plant showed signs of lead poisoning, Midgley rubbed it on his hands, saying, “I’m not taking any chance whatever.” So, in 1923 the first gas station sold the first tankful of leaded gas. Midgley should have been there to celebrate, but he was in bed with a case of severe lead poisoning. He spent a year recovering and was lucky he didn’t die.
The surgeon general did issue a report on TEL, but other than that the government didn’t inform the public of the dangers.
Lead additives were finally banned in 1995, but not because of the health hazards. The lead was reacting with, and causing damage to, the newly developed catalytic converters. It’s all about the money.
As it turned out, Midgley surviving lead poisoning wasn’t so good for the rest of us. The saga continues. Stay tuned for part two, next week.
And if you’re on pins and needles wondering what Spencer is going to do about the leaded gas, book 6 will be out by the end of the summer!
KnowledgeNuts, Michael Van Duisen, Oct 2013
Smithsonian.com, Kat Eschner, Dec 2016