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.

Hello, Ethyl

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.

Meanwhile, Standard Oil of New Jersey had developed a faster, cheaper method of synthesizing TEL. In August 1924 production began in a makeshift works at its Bayway plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey. GM still held the TEL patent, but Standard now had the better manufacturing technology and a patent of its own to prove it.

To the apparent surprise of some at Du Pont, which had not been producing the fluid fast enough for GM's liking, the oil company (one of twenty-seven companies formed by the 1911 breakup of Rockefeller's Standard Oil Trust) and the automobile company formed a joint venture, which they called the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation. Why, one wonders, would GM deign to form Ethyl, a new company, with Standard? "In the first place," Sloan would testify in a 1952 antitrust suit, "I recognized that General Motors' organization had no competence whatsoever in chemical manufacture. We were mechanical people dealing in metal processing." The deaths at Dayton would certainly support this modest assessment. Sloan would also later record his view that management should not get sidetracked on noncore businesses. But there were clearly bushels of money to be made. Sloan had by now fully cottoned to an essential fact about his company's new lead additive patent. As the management expert P.F. Drucker described it many years later, "GM, in effect, made money on almost every gallon of gasoline sold, by anyone."

In one of its first official acts, the newly formed Ethyl Gasoline Corporation evinced renewed sensitivity to spin (not to mention a justifiably elevated level of paranoia) by insisting that its contract with the Bureau of Mines be modified yet again, to reflect that "before publication of any papers or articles by your Bureau, they should be submitted to them [Ethyl] for comment, criticism, and approval." Thus, as the public health historians David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz have observed, the newly formed Ethyl Corporation was given "veto power over the research of the United States government."

Death by Loony Gas

Du Pont would supply most of Ethyl's TEL requirements for years to come, but, according to a letter written by Alfred Sloan to Irénée du Pont in the fall of 1924, in an accommodation to Standard Oil that firm had been permitted to maintain a small "semiworks" at its Bayway refinery. Later, Du Pont engineers would express serious reservations about the safety of Standard's facility. An internal 1936 Du Pont history would recount that the company was "greatly shocked at the manifest danger of the equipment and methods [and] at the inadequate safety precautions" at the Standard facility, but their suggestions were "waved aside." Unfortunate it was.

On October 26, 1924, the first of five workers who would die in quick succession at Standard Oil's Bayway TEL works perished, after wrenching fits of violent insanity; thirty-five other workers would experience tremors, hallucinations, severe palsies and other serious neurological symptoms of organic lead poisoning. In total, more than 80 percent of the Bayway staff would die or suffer severe poisoning. News of these deaths was the first that many Americans heard of leaded gasoline--although it would take a few days, as the New York City papers and wire services rushed to cover a mysterious industrial disaster that Standard stonewalled and GM declined to delve into.

Confusion and panic marked the headlines, with reporters forced to travel to New Jersey to track a story they'd probably have noted in a lightly rewritten press release if Standard had appeared more forthcoming. On October 30, days after the first Bayway death, the press was at last invited to Standard's New York City headquarters for an afternoon session of long-overdue, professionally crafted spin control. Thomas Midgley had been rushed to 26 Broadway from Dayton and would address the corps. But first, Standard's medical consultant, J. Gilman Thompson, presented them with a typewritten statement, supplying the company's most sculpted telling of recent history yet:

[TEL's] recently discovered use for greatly promoting the efficiency of gasoline engines has led to its manufacture on a commercial scale through processes still more or less in a stage of development. This has occasioned unforeseen accidents.... One of these has been the sudden escape of fumes from large retorts, and the inhalation of such fumes gives rise to acute symptoms, particularly congestion of the brain, producing a condition not unlike delirium tremens. Although there is lead in the compound, these acute symptoms are wholly unlike those of chronic lead poisoning such as painters often have.
      "There is no obscurity whatever about the effects of the poison and characterizing the substance as 'mystery gas' or 'insanity gas' is grossly misleading.

Asked to assess their liability to families of men who said they were not warned of the dangers, Standard Oil officials said "the rejection of many men as physically unfit to engage in the work of the Bayway plant, daily physical examinations, constant admonitions as to wearing rubber gloves and using gas masks and not wearing away from the plant clothing worn during work hours should have been sufficient indication to every man in the plant that he was engaged 'in a man's undertaking.'"

The falsity and cruelty of Standard's position were manifest, the ironies rife. First, Standard wasn't in experimental production. It was making TEL to sell. Second, its stony silence alone had led to stories in the press about a "mystery" gas, because reporters learned that TEL had been dubbed "loony gas" from Bayway workers whom they interviewed after being brushed off by the company brass. Finally, the escapes of gas weren't sudden, as claimed, but ongoing, the poisoning cumulative. The doctors at Reconstruction Hospital had told the Herald Tribune that violent insanity was "brought on by the gradual infiltration of lead in their systems."

The day's true highlight, however, would be Midgley's presentation. The celebrated engineer and Ethyl VP, who had only recently been forced to leave work to recover from lead poisoning, proposed to demonstrate that TEL was not dangerous in small quantities, by rubbing some of it on his hands. Midgley was fond of this exhibition and would repeat it elsewhere, washing his hands thoroughly in the fluid and drying them on his handkerchief. "'I'm not taking any chance whatever,' he said. 'Nor would I take any chance doing that every day.'" The New York World cited unbelievable dispatches from Detroit claiming that Midgley "frequently bathed" in TEL to prove its safety to skeptics within the industry.

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