Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Story of Lead

Elizabeth Kolbert, in a New Yorker review of Auto-Mania: Cars, Consumers, and the Environment by Tom McCarthy:

The earliest automobiles were designed to run on ordinary—which is to say, unleaded—gas. But in the nineteen-tens, as automakers began to experiment with higher-compression engines, the problem of “knock” arose....In 1921, a team of G.M. researchers looking for a way to prevent knock discovered that by adding small amounts of tetraethyl lead, or TEL, to the fuel supply they could solve the problem.

By that point, the toxicity of lead was already well known. Indeed, one of the G.M. researchers behind TEL, Thomas Midgley, very nearly poisoned himself while working on the additive, and several workers at a plant experimenting with TEL died gruesome deaths as a result of exposure to it. (Midgley went on to invent Freon, which was later discovered to be destroying the ozone layer.) In response to an outcry from public-health experts, G.M. and Standard Oil, which had formed a joint venture called the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation to manufacture leaded gas, launched a P.R. campaign. Among the arguments the companies made was that there simply were no alternatives to TEL, a claim that, according to McCarthy, there is reason to believe they knew to be false. (Already in the twenties, chemists proposed eliminating knock by increasing the octane level in gasoline, as was eventually done)....It took the federal government until the mid-nineteen-seventies to order its phase-out. By that point, G.M. had sold its interest in Ethyl, and automakers in general had turned against TEL, not because it caused brain damage but because it interfered with the operation of catalytic converters, an innovation that car manufacturers had also long resisted. It is estimated that by 1996, when the sale of leaded gasoline for use in cars was finally banned in the U.S., seven million tons of lead had been released from automobiles’ exhaust pipes into the air, and nearly seventy million American children had been exposed to what would now be considered dangerous blood-lead levels.
If stories like this were taught in every grade school in America, there would be fewer libertarians to annoy us.