The Secret History of Lead | The Nation


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.

Tetraethyl Death

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.

In August, Du Pont's TEL plant opened at Deepwater, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Wilmington. Less than thirty days would pass before the first of several TEL poisoning deaths of workers there would occur. Not surprisingly, given Du Pont's stranglehold on all local media within its domain along the Delaware, the deaths went unreported.

Even so, news of these and similar deaths would inevitably come out. Realizing that its own medical research would be less than credible then, and having been turned down by reputable academics and the Public Health Service in its search for consultants to help "refute any false propaganda," GM hurriedly contracted the US Bureau of Mines in September 1923 to explore the dangers of TEL. Even by the lax standards of its day, the bureau was a docile corporate servant, with not an adversarial bone in its body. It saw itself as in the mining promotion business, with much of its scientific work undertaken in collaboration with industry. The bureau's presumptive harmlessness notwithstanding, to its written agreement with GM was nonetheless added a remarkable proviso, that the bureau "refrain from giving out the usual press and progress reports during the course of the work, as [GM] feels that the newspapers are apt to give scare headlines and false impressions before we definitely know what the influence of the material will be."

Indicative of the bureau leadership's fundamental outlook was an exchange between the superintendent of its Pittsburgh field station, where the TEL investigation was being conducted, and the bureau's chief chemist, S.C. Lind. By letter, Lind had objected to the use of the trade name "Ethyl" when referring to tetraethyl lead gasoline.

"Of course their [GM officials] object in doing so is fairly clear, and among other things they are not particularly desirous of having the name 'lead' appear in this case. That is alright from the standpoint of the General Motors Company but it is quite a question in my mind as to whether the Bureau of Mines would be justified in adopting this name so early in the game."

The superintendent replied that omission of "the use of the word 'lead' in the interbureau correspondence" was intentional to prevent leaks to the papers. "If it should happen to get some publicity accidentally, it would not be so bad if the word 'lead' were omitted as this term is apt to prejudice somewhat against its use."

Indeed, lead had acquired a bad name by 1920, as scientific and public awareness of its supreme deadliness as an occupational and pediatric hazard was increasing. Then, in April 1924, two GM employees engaged in the manufacture of TEL at a pilot plant in Dayton also died of lead poisoning. Large numbers of nonfatal poisonings were noted at this time. Thomas Midgley was said to be "depressed to the point of considering giving up the whole tetraethyl lead program." But Kettering, emerging from his copper-cooled funk, wouldn't slow down. Two months later, he would urge Du Pont to step up production. At the same time, seeking even greater control over Bureau of Mines test results, GM stipulated that "all manuscripts, before publication, will be submitted to the Company for comment and criticism.

By any measure, the TEL constituency had experienced a run of rum luck, and in June 1924 GM president Sloan, "gravely concerned about the poison hazard" and deaths at TEL plants in Dayton and Deepwater, approved the formation of a medical committee, with J. Gilman Thompson, consulting physician to Standard Oil of New Jersey (which had been marketing Ethyl and dabbling in its manufacture), as chairman. Summing up the gloomy feeling all around at this time, Du Pont chairman Irénée du Pont wrote Sloan at GM that TEL "may be killed by a better substitute or because of its poisonous character or because of its [destructive] action on the engine."

Following its investigation, GM's medical committee delivered what was apparently a negative and highly cautionary report on TEL. But Irénée du Pont, having undergone some sort of conversion or, possibly, having remembered his family's lifelong devotion to profit at any cost, wrote Sloan on August 29, 1924, and told him not to worry: "I have read the doctors' report and am not disturbed by the severity of the findings." Another product his firm made--nitroglycerin--was even more hazardous to make, du Pont added breezily, while lead dust from car exhaust was but nothing compared to erosion from lead paint. Years later, this would become a major plank of TEL supporters' defense.

For some unknown reason, the report of Sloan's blue-ribbon medical committee, like many original documents referenced in GM reports on TEL, is not available in the company's public archives.

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