Environmental Issues > Energy Main Page > All Energy Documents

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

All Tags [ View Popular Tags ]:
60mpg
AB 1493
AB 32
agriculture
air pollution
air toxics
alabama
algae
AnthonySwift
Appalachia
appliances
Arctic
Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
asthma
automakers
aviation
beaches
biochar
biodiesel
biofuels
biogas
biomass
birds
boreal forest
budget
CaiSteger
California
California environmental legislation
Canada
cap 2.0
cap and trade
carbon footprint
carbon offsets
carbon pollution
cars
case studies
causes of global warming
CCS
CFLs
Chile
china
CHP
Clean air
Clean Air Act
clean energy
clean energy economy
clean vehicles
cleantech
climate
climate change
climate legislation
clothes dryers
coal
coal-fired power plants
compact fluorescent lighting
compact fluorescents
computer equipment
Congress
conservation and restoration
consumer products
coral
cover crop
Danielle Droitsch
DanielleDroitsch
data centers
DebbieHammel
deforestation
demand side management
DerekMurrow
DevraWang
DianeBailey
diesel
diesel buses
diesel exhaust
dirty fuels
dod
dolphins
drilling
economy
efficiency
efficient light bulbs
efficient vehicles
electric cars
electric utilities
electric vehicles
electricity
electricity and natural gas utlities
ElizabethShope
emissions
energy efficiency
energy efficiency standard
energy efficient buildings
energy efficient light bulbs
energy effiency
energy plan
energy policy
energy security
energyappropriations
energyapprops
energy-efficient bulbs
environmental history
environmental protection agency
EPA
ethanol
finance
fish & fishing
florida
Forests
fracking
fracking risks
FranzMetzner
fuel
fuel economy
fuel efficiency
fuel efficiency standards
fuel savings
gas drilling
gas prices
gasoline
gis
global warming
global warming and the economy
global warming emissions
global warming legislation
global warming pollution
globalwarming
green building
green buildings
green business
green jobs
green sports
greenhouse gas emissions
Gulf
gulf of mexico
gulfofmexico
gulfspill
halogen bulbs
halogen lightbulbs
health
health effects
home energy
home networks
household energy use
HUD
human health
Hurricane Katrina
hybrid
hybrid cars
hybrid electric vehicles
hybrid vehicles
hybrids
hydraulic fractring
hydraulic fracturing
hydrogen
hydropower
incandescent lighbulbs
incandescent light bulbs
India
India Initiative
indoor air quality
infrastructure efficiency
interiorappropriations
interiorapprops
jobs
keystone
Keystone XL
Kids' Health
KXL
Latin America
LCFS
lead
LEDs
light
light bulbs
light emitting diodes
liquid coal
livestock farms
location efficiency
Los Angeles
louisiana
LukeTonachel
mapping
Marcellus Shale
Massachusetts
mercury
methane
Mexico
mid-Atlantic
Middle East
mining
mississippi
Missouri
Montana
mountains
mountaintop removal mining
mtr
natural gas
natural gas drilling
NEPA
New York
Nigeria
nitrogen oxides
NoahHorowitz
North Dakota
Northeast states
nrdc offices
nuclear energy
oceans
offshore
offshore drilling
offshore oil
ohio
oil
oil and gas industry
oil consumption
oil dependence
oil drilling
oil imports
oil shale
oil spill
oil spills
oilspill
OPEC
open space
ozone
particulate pollution
pennsylvania
Persian Gulf
photos
PierreDelforge
pipeline
policy
pollution
power plants
PTC
public lands
public transportation
rail
refrigerants
regional greenhouse gas initiative
regulatory reform
renewable energy
renewable fuel
renewables
residential small networks
respiratory illness
RGGI
riders
Rocky Mountains
RPS
Russia
SB 315
schools
server rooms
shell
smart biomass
smart grid
smart growth
smog
smog air pollution
solar
solar power
solutions
soot
Southeast
sulfur dioxide
SusanCasey-Lefkowitz
sustainable sourcing
tar sands
tar sands pipeline
tar sands; keystone xl
tax incentives
tax subsidies
television
tennessee
texas
toxic waste
trailbreaker
transit
transportation
transportation bill
trasnportation
tv
tvs
utilities
VEETC
vehicle
vehicle emissions
vehicles
Venezuela
video game consoles
wastewater
water efficiency
water management
Water Pollution
western water
wetlands
whales
what you can do
wind
wind power
wind turbines

Sign up for NRDC's online newsletter

See the latest issue >

Give the Gift That Will Make a Difference: Renewable Reality

NRDC Gets Top Ratings from the Charity Watchdogs

Charity Navigator awards NRDC its 4-star top rating.
Worth magazine named NRDC one of America's 100 best charities.
NRDC meets the highest standards of the Wise Giving Alliance of the Better Business Bureau.


Donate now >

Related Stories

Efficient Appliances Save Energy -- and Money
A consumer's guide to buying energy efficient appliances and electronics.
Share | |
Find NRDC on
YouTube