The Leaded Gas Scare of the 1920s
Corporate enthusiasm for this 'super fuel' overcame public fears until scientific evidence proved its harmful effects.
The invention of a lead additive for gasoline was part of the great technological adventure of the first years of this century: transforming the horseless carriage into the modern automobile. One of the pioneers of this era was Charles "Boss" Kettering, who was famous for inventing the self-starting ignition system, thus eliminating the early automobile's handcrank. Kettering also wanted to get rid of what he called "the noisy bugbear" of knock, the rackety sound that was the sign of a poorly running car engine. As vice-president of Research at General Motors, he presided over an intense effort to find a way to make car engines work more efficiently.
The answer the GM scientists hit on in the early 1920s was to add a lead compound, tetraethyl lead, to gasoline. The resulting fuel was to be marketed by GM and Standard Oil under the name Ethyl. But in 1924, as tests were being conducted on the substance at a Standard Oil facility in New Jersey, several workers died from a form of sudden lead poisoning in which they became delirious and violent. Newspapers soon reported that other workers had died similar deaths at a DuPont Company plant, and that the company had tried to keep any word of the fatalities from getting out.
Fear of leaded gas accelerates
These incidents gave credence to complaints already being voiced by public health reformers Alice Hamilton, the first woman on the faculty of the Harvard Medical School, and Dr. Yandell Henderson, a physiologist at Yale University. Dr. Henderson had helped develop some of the poisonous gases used in the First World War, as well as the gas mask worn by U.S. soldiers, and as contrition for his wartime efforts he had become America's most vociferous critic of automakers' efforts to market leaded gasoline. His warning that pedestrians by the hundreds might simply fall down dead on the nation's sidewalks if motorists began using leaded gas, though greatly exaggerated, struck a responsive chord with the public.
With the nation's newspapers full of accounts of leaded gas claiming the lives of workers, Hamilton and Henderson's warnings stirred the press and the public into a frenzy. Standard Oil, it was learned, had already put Ethyl on the market based only on the results of its own tests with the substance. Responding to the uproar, local boards of health stepped in, blocking any further sale of Ethyl until unbiased tests could be conducted.
"Better Living Through Chemistry"
Unfortunately, as this crisis revealed, there was no official federal body in the 1920s with powers to investigate the manufacture and distribution of a new industrial product. The very idea that important technological developments would be scrutinized and judged before they had reached the market, and perhaps halted, was almost heretical. It was certainly un-American. DuPont's slogan "Better Living Through Chemistry" neatly expressed the era's faith in miraculous compounds like leaded gasoline.
The job of examining the merits of Ethyl fell to the U.S. Surgeon General's office, which was attached to the Treasury Department and whose chief duties up to that point involved maintaining quarantine stations at U.S. ports. In May 1925 Surgeon General Hugh Cumming called for a conference of experts and interested parties to consider the pros and cons of this new fuel compound.
The corporate interests dominated the hearings, for they had controlled all the research and testing of the new gasoline. The men who had died from handling Ethyl, it was shown, had been exposed to concentrations far greater than the motoring public ever would in using leaded gasoline. Reformers Hamilton and Henderson pointed out the known dangers associated with lead poisoning and cited the tremendous health risks of even tiny amounts of lead being discharged in automobile exhaust fumes, but they were overwhelmed by the corporate enthusiasm for Ethyl. One Standard Oil spokesman likened it to a "gift of God," so great was its potential to improve the automobile. After deliberating, the panel agreed to lift the ban on the sale of leaded gasoline.
Getting the lead out
For 50 years after its appearance on the market, leaded gas continued to power America's love-affair with the big luxury cars Detroit was producing. But in the 1960's scientific evidence made it clear that airborne lead was a serious health hazard. Efforts were renewed to outlaw lead in gasoline, with federal restrictions governing the lead content of motor fuels coming into effect in the 1970s. Lead exposure, we now know, can cause a wide range of illnesses in adults and poses especially high risks for children, affecting their neurological development, growth and intelligence.
Of course, the voices of caution ignored in 1925 were absolutely correct. Leaded gasoline was good for car engines, but bad for people. Although today leaded gasoline is banned in the U.S. and other industrialized nations, it is still in use in many developing countries, where in large cities it is considered a grave health risk to children.
last revised 4/2/1997
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