The Secret History of Lead
A Gift of God?
Today business school students carefully analyze the corporate response to the scare caused by a small batch of tainted Tylenol and widely hail it as a work of genius. Yet it was nothing compared with Ethyl's road back from disaster, skillfully negotiated with a product that was a deadly poison from the get-go. Ethyl, to use the modern argot, had an aggressive plan and made it stick. You might say it was one of the most brilliant exercises in co-branded damage control ever.
For on Christmas Eve, 1924, Charles Kettering, Frank Howard of Standard and Du Pont chief engineer W.F. Harrington paid a private visit to Surgeon General Hugh Cumming to request that the Public Health Service hold public hearings on TEL. Cumming readily agreed. As Du Pont's private history of 1936 would note, "In the prevailing state of strong prejudice and excited fears, the new industry was fortunate in having the question of the health risk in the use of tetraethyl lead actively taken up...by the US Public Health Service."
On May 4, 1925, in an act exquisitely timed and brilliantly crafted to the right tone of seriousness for the proceedings, Ethyl publicly withdrew its product from the market. On May 20 eighty-seven participants convened in the Butler Building at Third and B Streets, in Washington, DC, along with a dozen reporters, for the Surgeon General's conference. Conspicuously absent was Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, whose agency was charged with oversight of the PHS. Nowhere was it reported that Mellon family interests controlled Gulf Oil, which had recently acquired an exclusive Ethyl distributorship.
At the hearing, Standard's Frank Howard (soon to be an Ethyl director) uttered the memorable pronouncement that TEL was "a gift of God" that conscience and the march of human progress compelled GM to exploit.
Our problem is not that simple. We cannot quite act on a remote probability. We are engaged in the General Motors Corporation in the manufacture of automobiles, and in the Standard Oil Company in the manufacture and refining of oil. On these things our present industrial civilization is supposed to depend. I might refer to the comment made at the end of the war--that the Allies floated to victory on a sea of oil--which is probably true....
Now as a result of some 10 years' [sic] research on the part of The General Motors Corporation and 5 years' research by the Standard Oil Co., or a little bit more, we have this apparent gift of God--of 3 cubic centimeters of tetraethyl lead--which will permit that gallon of gasoline...to go perhaps 50 percent further...
What is our duty under the circumstances? Should we throw this thing aside? Should we say, 'No, we will not use it,' in spite of the efforts of the government and the General Motors Corporation and the Standard Oil Co. toward developing this very thing, which is a certain means of saving petroleum? Because some animals die and some do not die in some experiments, shall we give this thing up entirely?
Frankly, it is a problem that we do not know how to meet. We cannot justify ourselves in our consciences if we abandon the thing. I think it would be an unheard-of blunder if we should abandon a thing of this kind merely because of our fears. Possibilities cannot be allowed to influence us to such an extent as that in this matter.
(Many years later, Howard would be forced to relinquish his Standard post by the Federal Trade Commission for collaborating with Nazi Germany, but he would retain his seat at Ethyl.)
Ethyl sales manager A.S. Maxwell got even more carried away, telling a reporter that engines would run so efficiently with leaded gas that GM was developing an engine that "will triple the best mileage a gallon of gasoline will give today." Actually, while the high compression Ethyl permitted--like ethanol or any octane booster--might have offered fuel-economy benefits, average fuel economy in the United States fell steadily from 1925, the year of Ethyl's introduction, through the seventies, when cars shrank and unleaded fuel became the standard. In 1974 GM's corporate average fuel economy had fallen to a near-comical 12.2 miles per gallon. By 1987, after unleaded became predominant and catalytic converters a standard, the sales/registered-fleet average for cars sold in the United States had climbed to 27.3 miles per gallon. Yet TEL defenders to this day cite conservation as its key benefit.