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The Secret History of Lead | The Nation

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The Secret History of Lead

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Research support was provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute. Follow-ups:
"Amplification," June 19, 2000 and letters exchanges: "Lead--Balloons and Bouquets," May 15, and "Lead-Letter Office," July 3, 2000.

Ethyl Adrift

About the Author

Jamie Lincoln Kitman
Jamie Lincoln Kitman, New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine, won an investigative reporting award from...

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The stalling of the Republican-backed energy bill by a Democrat-led Senate filibuster was only a temporary reprieve.

The response of local governments and public health officials to the Bayway disaster was swift and stern. The day of Midgley's peculiar demonstration, the New York City Board of Health banned the sale of TEL-enhanced gasoline, saying that "such mixtures of gasoline, containing lead or other deleterious substances, may be liable to prove detrimental and dangerous to the health and lives of the community, particularly when released as exhaust from motor vehicles." Within a matter of days Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and the State of New Jersey would ban gasoline containing the lead additive. Ethyl would continue to be sold in the Midwest, but elsewhere on the East Coast its use was unofficially discouraged by authorities.

In early November 1924, after the fifth Bayway worker died, the Bureau of Mines study on TEL was released (remember that GM and then Ethyl had reserved for themselves the right to approve the timing of its release). Not surprisingly, the bureau's report, based on limited animal testing it had conducted, gave the substance a clean bill of health. The New York Times, which had decided as editorial policy to support the use of TEL, served up just the sort of front-page headline Ethyl hoped for: "No Peril to Public Seen in Ethyl Gas/Bureau of Mines Reports after Long Experiments with Motor Exhausts/More Deaths Unlikely."

Yandell Henderson of Yale and others assailed the Bureau of Mines study as a hopelessly shoddy investigation financed by an interested party, Ethyl, and bemoaned Washington's antiregulatory climate. The bureau had "investigated the danger to the public of acute lead poisoning," he noted derisively,

and had failed even to take into account the possibility that the atmosphere might be polluted to such an extent along automobile thoroughfares that those who worked or lived along such streets would gradually absorb lead in sufficient quantities to poison them in the course of months....
      Perhaps if leaded gasoline kills enough people soon enough to impress the public, we may get from Congress a much-needed law and appropriation for the control of harmful substances other than foods. But it seems more likely that the conditions will grow worse so gradually and the development of lead poisoning will come on so insidiously (for this is the nature of the disease) that leaded gasoline will be in nearly universal use and large numbers of cars will have been sold that can run only on that fuel before the public and the Government awaken to the situation....
      This is probably the greatest single question in the field of public health that has ever faced the American public. It is the question whether scientific experts are to be consulted, and the action of Government guided by their advice, or whether, on the contrary, commercial interests are to be allowed to subordinate every other consideration to that of profit.

Echoing the fears of PHS lab director William Clark more than two years earlier, Henderson had clearly isolated the greatest threat of leaded gasoline--not the severe cases of industrial poisoning that had grabbed the headlines but the slow, unrelenting low-level exposure that was sure to occur as the use of leaded gasoline spread. As we shall see, the industry would use this dichotomy--accidental deaths at the plant versus insidious poisoning--to its advantage. The former risk could be acknowledged because it could be prevented, while the latter was doubted, denied and endlessly debated.

In years to come, the federal government would do much to help the lead interests actively across a variety of fields, but the greatest assistance offered was an act of omission: a signal failure to arrange for independent examination of the effects of automotive lead emissions on the public health. By 1924 the government's allegiance and probity were already in question. As C.W. Deppé, owner of the Lilliputian Deppé Motors, put it in a letter to the Secretary of the Interior, Hubert Work: "May I be pardoned if I ask you frankly now, does the Bureau of Mines exist for the benefit of Ford and the G.M. Corporation and the Standard Oil Co. of New Jersey, and other oil companies parties to the distribution of the Ethyl Lead Dopes, or is the Bureau supposed to be for the public benefit and in protection of life and health?"

Enter the Surgeon General

Three months after the Bayway disaster, a grand jury acquitted Standard Oil of criminal responsibility for the tragedy despite the fact that, as the New York Times stated in summarizing the grand jury's findings: "The report found that the deaths were directly due to poisoning...[and] recommended that before it resumes operations the company try to perfect some machinery by which ethyl gas can be manufactured without endangering life."

This was good news for Ethyl's backers, but strangely at variance with the views of Standard's own partners. As Du Pont's internal history of 1936 concluded: "Notwithstanding...foreknowledge at the peril, the precautions taken in the small manufacturing operation at Bayway were grossly inadequate." And GM took a dim view of the Standard operation as well. Ferris Hurd, a GM attorney testifying in the government's 1953 antitrust suit against Du Pont, summarized events:

[Standard] put up a plant that lasted two months and killed five people and practically wiped out the rest of the plant. The disaster was so bad that the state of New Jersey entered the picture and issued an order that Standard could never go back into the manufacture of [tetraethyl lead] without the permission of the state of New Jersey. In fact, the furor over it was so great that the newspapers took it up, and they misrepresented it, and instead of realizing that the danger was in the manufacture, they got to thinking that the danger was exposure of the public in the use of it, and the criticism of its use was so great that it was banned in many cities and they had to close down the manufacture and sale of Ethyl.

Of course, there was a danger to the public in the use of Ethyl, but the public wouldn't know it for decades, thanks in large part to the institutional inability and temperamental disinclination of the federal government at this time to do anything more than smile upon new technologies and corporate incursions into new and lucrative markets. The wave of publicity surrounding the Bayway disaster had left Ethyl on the defensive, however. The company knew it would be up to government to set matters right.

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