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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 Changes Hand

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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By the late thirties Ethyl had sewed up the US market, as noted, and was making major inroads in Europe. After World War II, Third World markets would begin to be opened. On the surface things looked pretty good for the company, which by now had blanketed the earth with its "gift of God." As "The Ethyl Story," an insert in the Ethyl corporation's annual report for 1963, observed with enthusiasm, "today, lead alkyl antiknock compounds are used in more than 98 percent of all gasoline sold in the United States and in billions of gallons more sold in the rest of the world. Leaded gasoline is available at 200,000 service stations in this country and thousands of others around the globe."

Strange it was, then, that in 1962 GM and Standard suddenly dumped the Ethyl Corporation on the market. Even more surprising to many was the buyer, the tiny Albermarle Paper Manufacturing Company of Richmond, Virginia, and the structure of the deal: It was the modern world's first recorded leveraged buyout. Albemarle, owned by the Gottwald family, had acquired Ethyl, eighteen times its size, with $200 million of borrowed money, making the front page of the New York Times. "It was like a Mom and Pop grocery buying the A&P!" remarked an incredulous Monroe Jackson Rathbone, Standard Oil of New Jersey's president, after presumably taking a back seat in the negotiations.

No one who's talking knows why GM wanted out of Ethyl in 1962. Ethyl's official historian notes dryly that profits were flat in the late fifties. The company's TEL patents had expired in 1947, and this allowed Nalco, PPG and Houston Chemical to get into the TEL game on the back of Ethyl's yeoman work. But Ethyl was still the 800-pound gorilla in the tetraethyl arena; overall, profits were pleasingly plump and Ethyl's annual reports were upbeat. A more important factor may have been the sense that antitrust was in the air, with the du Pont family being ordered by the government during this period to divest billions in GM shares. Ethyl's incestuous paternity and its unseemly relations with Nazi Germany during World War II were reasons to avoid closer scrutiny by a nosy government. And, just perhaps, GM might have known something heavy was coming.

Ethyl's new owners would, in fact, soon find themselves staring at more worrisome smoke signals than a patch of duff profits. In July 1943 the Los Angeles Times reported the city's first major smog episode. In 1950 Dr. Arie Haagen-Smit reported that the interaction of hydrocarbons (HC) and oxides of nitrogen (NOX) caused smog in Los Angeles. By 1953 automobiles would be identified as the region's largest source of hydrocarbons. Though they may or may not have known it in 1962, the makers of TEL would soon be staring down the barrel of a gun--the anti-air pollution movement.

American auto makers saw the threat that air pollution posed to their business. In the mid-fifties they'd concluded a formal but secret agreement among themselves to license pollution-control technologies jointly and not publicize discoveries in the area without prior approval of all the signatories, a pre-emptive strike against those who would pressure them to install costly emissions controls. The effect of their pact would be to stifle the development of these much-needed devices and technologies. When their agreement came to the Justice Department's attention in 1969, the fallout from the exposure of their perfidy and mounting awareness of the nation's out-of-control smog problem would guarantee passage of air-pollution laws that would eventually put lead out of business in America. By this time, the legislative mood had changed as it pertained to the automobile, fueled in large measure by the work--and persecution, by GM--of a young lawyer and Congressional aide named Ralph Nader, who, after raising serious questions about auto safety, had been followed and harassed by GM's private detectives.

Crucially, too, by 1969 the entire Kehoe view of natural human lead burdens had been knocked out--with one punch--by Dr. Clair Patterson, a California Institute of Technology geochemist. A onetime member of the Manhattan Project, Patterson is widely credited with giving us our most accurate estimate of the earth's age--4.55 billion years. With the publication in 1965 of his seminal work, "Contaminated and Natural Lead Environments of Man," in the Archives of Environmental Health, the scientific world had its hardest proof ever that high background lead levels in industrial lands were man-made and endemic. Noticing heavy planetary lead contamination in the process of establishing the age of the planet, Patterson detailed how industrial man had raised his lead burden 100 times and levels of atmospheric lead 1,000 times. Kehoe's rule of error ended in a flash.

Kehoe held his head high in his remarks to Edmund Muskie's Congressional clean air subcommittee in 1966, but Patterson had turned him into an academic train wreck. Unlike Kehoe, Patterson utilized state-of-the-art methods to avoid subject contamination with background lead. Analyzing the 1,600-year-old bones of pre-Columbian humans, he showed that the twentieth-century human lead burden was seriously elevated. Though Patterson's work was widely hailed by the scientific community (it was the reason Kehoe was humored, rather than respected, by the Muskie committee), the paper earned the professor a visit from representatives of the Ethyl corporation, who, in Patterson's words, tried to "buy me out through research support that would yield results favorable to their cause."

Instead of joining forces with Ethyl, Patterson delivered a lecture assailing the company's activities and predicting the demise of their TEL operation. Following these events, his longstanding contract with the Public Health Service was not renewed, nor was a substantial contract with the American Petroleum Institute. Members of the board of trustees at Cal Tech leaned on the chairman of his department to fire him. Others have alleged that Ethyl offered to endow a chair at Cal Tech if Patterson was sent packing.

In January 1969 the four major US auto companies and their trade association--along with seven manufacturers of trucks and cabs, listed as co-conspirators--were accused by the Justice Department of conspiracy to delay development and use of devices to control air pollution from cars, based on their secret agreement. Though they would settle the government's suit in September by agreeing to terminate their compact as well as all joint research, publicity or lobbying on emissions issues, Detroit's position vis-à-vis air pollution had been severely compromised. Ethyl was on its own now, and it was fair and easy game to take the fall.

On January 14, 1970, GM president Ed Cole announced to a flabbergasted audience the company's intention to meet pending clean-air laws with catalytic converters beginning in 1974. Attached to automotive exhaust systems, these devices trap many harmful emissions. However, the catalysts' active element, platinum, is expensive, a real problem when it is rendered instantly inoperative (and the car undrivable) by the lead in "ethylized" gasoline. Farewell, then, leaded gasoline.

Ethyl was livid. As an authorized corporate biographer wrote some years later, "Here was General Motors, which had fathered the additive, calling for its demise! And it struck some people as incongruous--not to use a harsher word--for General Motors to sell half of what was essentially a lead additive firm for many millions and then to advocate annihilation of the lead antiknock business."

"'Get the lead out' has become a slogan in every household," Lawrence Blanchard Jr., an Ethyl exec, complained. "I still stay awake some nights trying to figure out how we got into this mess."

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