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The Secret History of Lead | The Nation

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The Secret History of Lead

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Apprised of Midgley's discovery that one part TEL could be used to fortify 1,000 parts of gasoline, Kettering proposed the name "Ethyl" for the new antiknock fluid, a mild irony in light of both men's longtime--and soon to fade--interest in ethyl alcohol. At researcher Boyd's suggestion Ethyl was dyed red. There was as yet, however, no plan to market Ethyl. Indeed, in July 1922, seven months after TEL's discovery, J.W. Morrison of the GM Patent Department would encourage Midgley to "see if the U.S. Industrial Alcohol Co. have opened a valuable line of research. Mr. Clements [the lab manager at GM] stated some time ago that it might be worth our while to carry our investigations further on the problem of utilizing alcohols in motors. I think he mentioned specifically combinations of alcohol and gasoline."

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.

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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From the corporation's perspective, however, the problems with ethyl alcohol were ultimately insurmountable and rather basic. GM couldn't dictate an infrastructure that could supply ethanol in the volumes that might be required. Equally troubling, any idiot with a still could make it at home, and in those days, many did. And ethanol, unlike TEL, couldn't be patented; it offered no profits for GM. Moreover, the oil companies hated it, a powerful disincentive for the fledgling GM, which was loath to jeopardize relations with these mighty power brokers. Surely the du Pont family's growing interest in oil and oil fields, as it branched out from its gunpowder roots into the oil-dependent chemical business, weighed on many GM directors' minds.

In March 1922, Pierre du Pont wrote to his brother Irénée du Pont, Du Pont company chairman, that TEL is "a colorless liquid of sweetish odor, very poisonous if absorbed through the skin, resulting in lead poisoning almost immediately." This statement of early factual knowledge of TEL's supreme deadliness is noteworthy, for it is knowledge that will be denied repeatedly by the principals in coming years as well as in the Ethyl Corporation's authorized history, released almost sixty years later. Underscoring the deep and implicit coziness between GM and Du Pont at this time, Pierre informed Irénée about TEL before GM had even filed its patent application for it.

The Rise of Tetraethyl Lead

With the application filed, the groundwork was laid for manufacture of TEL. An October 1922 agreement contracted Du Pont to supply GM. Signing for GM was Pierre du Pont; signing for Du Pont: his brother Irénée. Manufacturing began in 1923 with a small operation in Dayton, Ohio, that made 160 gallons of tetraethyl lead a day and shipped it out in one-liter bottles, each of which would treat 300 gallons of gasoline.

In February 1923 the world's first tankful of leaded gasoline was pumped at Refiners Oil Company, at the corner of Sixth and Main streets, in Dayton, Ohio, from a station owned by Kettering's friend Willard Talbott. But four months earlier, an agitated William Mansfield Clark, a lab director in the US Public Health Service, had written A.M. Stimson, assistant Surgeon General at the PHS, warning that Du Pont was preparing to manufacture TEL at its plant in Deepwater, New Jersey. It constituted a "serious menace to public health" he stated, with reports already emerging from the plant that "several very serious cases of lead poisoning have resulted" in pilot production.

Clark additionally speculated that widespread use of TEL would mean "on busy thoroughfares it is highly probable that the lead oxide dust will remain in the lower stratum." Estimating that each gallon of gasoline burned would emit four grams of lead oxide, he worried that this would build up to dangerous levels along heavily traveled roads and in tunnels.

Stimson was troubled enough by Clark's letter to request that the PHS's Division of Pharmacology conduct investigations; unfortunately, the division's director responded, such trials would be too time-consuming. He suggested that the PHS rely upon industry to supply the relevant data, a spectacularly poor plan that would amount to government policy for the next forty years.

Perhaps spurred by Clark's missive and Stimson's concern, in December 1922 the US Surgeon General, H.S. Cumming, wrote Pierre du Pont: "Inasmuch as it is understood that when employed in gasoline engines, this substance will add a finely divided and nondiffusible form of lead to exhaust gases, and furthermore, since lead poisoning in human beings is of the cumulative type resulting frequently from the daily intake of minute quantities, it seems pertinent to inquire whether there might not be a decided health hazard associated with the extensive use of lead tetraethyl in engines."

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