The Weekly Reflektion Week 44 / 2019

This week’s Reflektion is based on the story of Thomas Midgley Jr. and his role in developing leaded petrol.

The tetraethyl lead used in petrol.

Do you let commercial interests get in the way of the promoting a safe product?

Do you understand why people are sceptical when industry maintains that it will be OK?

Thomas Midgley was a mechanical engineer working at Dayton Research Laboratories, a subsidiary of General Motors. In 1921/22 Midgley was working on the problem of ‘knocking’ in internal combustion engines run on petrol. ‘Knocking’ occurs when combustion of some of the air/fuel mixture in the cylinder occurs outside the envelope of the normal combustion. Midgley discovered that the addition of tetraethyl lead (TEL) prevented knocking. During the work, Midgely also discovered that the addition of ethanol to petrol also reduced knocking. General Motors realised there was little profit in using ethanol since this was already available on the market. General Motors took out a patent on TEL as an additive to fuel and promoted the benefits of TEL for better power and efficiency. The product was marketed as ‘Ethyl’ to avoid using the word ‘lead’. Midgely received a number of prizes for his work including the prestigious Nicholas Medal from the American Chemical society in 1923.

DuPont opened a factory to produce ‘Ethyl’ in 1923 and General Motors created the General Motors Chemical Company to supervise manufacture. During the first two years, eight people died at the plant and many staff were suffering from depression. General Motors were unhappy* with the slow production at the DuPont factory so General Motors and Standard Oil Company of Jersey (later Exxon) created a new company, Ethyl Gasoline Corporation, to produce and market ‘Ethyl’. However, in the first two months of operation in the new factory, the workers experienced hallucinations, convulsions and mental deterioration. 32 of the 49 workers involved in the TEL production were hospitalised and there were five deaths.

*Note it was the speed of production GM were unhappy about, not the deaths and health effects.

A public health report in 1926 concluded that there was “no reason to prohibit the sale of leaded gasoline so long as workers were protected when they made it”. The task force that produced the report did assess the risks to the public and did find traces of lead in drivers’ blood and in residues in garages. The conclusion was that ‘Low levels of lead could be tolerated’.

The use of TEL additive in petrol spread to all the developed countries and the amount of TEL produced and lead emitted increased significantly as the use of vehicles escalated.

The concerns over TEL and the health effects of lead continued but the scientists and management at Ethyl Gasoline Corporation managed to fend off repeated attempts by the authorities, medical researchers and concern groups to investigate the effects of TEL.  At a Senate enquiry in the 1960s some senators maintained that only Ethyl Gasoline Corporation had the relevant knowledge and competence to assess the health risks of TEL.

Eventually the evidence of the effect of TEL around the world became impossible to deny. In 1973, the United States Environmental Protection Agency issued regulations to reduce TEL content in fuel. The regulations were challenged by the Ethyl Corporation who actually won the initial case.  This judgement was overturned on appeal. TEL was gradually phased out in the developed countries as the health risks became undisputable however, production of TEL moved to the developing countries. It was only in 2000 that TEL as a fuel additive was banned in India. In 2017, TEL was still being produced illegally and used in fuels in Algeria, Yemen and Iraq.

It is estimated that hundreds of millions of people worldwide were affected by lead poisoning due to the use of TEL as a fuel additive. Deaths, serious physical and mental illness, and learning difficulties were among the documented effects. This is part of our industrial history and our legacy of profit before safety. Industry has come a long way since then, but how do we ensure we have come as long as we should?

Do we let commercial interests get in the way of safety and health?

Do we understand why people are sceptical when industry maintains that it will be OK?

We will return to the story of Thomas Midgley Jr. in later Reflektions as he was also involved in the development of chlorofluorocarbons for use in refrigeration. So, as well as lead poisoning Midgley was involved in breaking down the ozone layer.

Reflekt AS