Fuels and Society B: 6. Corporate/Government Decisions, 1920-1950
to: 5. Worldwide Use of TEL
7. Lead - Pollution History
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The alcohol vs.additive struggle for the fuel of the future envisioned by Kettering and the research team at General Motors was not what other industries had in mind.
The public controversy began in October 1924 with the severe poisoning of 50 workers in a Standard Oil refinery in New Jersey just across the bay from New York City. When five of the workers died one day at a time with symptoms described as "violent insanity," the news was carried on the front pages of newspapers around the country. Leaded gasoline was banned in dozens of cities and states and Kettering announced it would be taken off the market voluntarily.
As the controversy escalated, Midgley and Kettering told the media, fellow scientists and the government that no alternatives existed. So far as science knows at the present time," Midgley said, "tetraethyllead is the only material available which can bring about these [antiknock] results, which are of vital importance to the continued economic use by the general public of all automotive equipment, and unless a grave and inescapable hazard exists in the manufacture of tetraethyllead, its abandonment cannot be justified.[i]
At a Public Health Service conference on leaded gasoline in 1925, Kettering said: "We could produce certain [antiknock] results and with the higher gravity gasolines, the aromatic series of compounds, alcohols, etc... [to] get the high compression without the knock, but in the great volume of fuel of the paraffin series [petroleum] we could not do that."[ii] Even though experts like Alice Hamilton of Harvard University insisted that leaded gasoline was dangerous and alternatives were available,[iii] the Public Health Service allowed leaded gasoline to go back on the market in 1926.
GM.s research into anti-knock fuels had switched gears sometime in 1923 or 1924 because of its partnership with Standard Oil and DuPont. The companies wanted to use tetraethyl lead because if was profitable.
Yet to claim that no alternatives existed was clearly
misleading, and to ignore public health concerns was
nothing less than putting profit ahead of the public
[i] Radium Derivative $5,000,000 an ounce / Ethyl Gasoline Defended, New York Times, April 7, 1925, p. 23; Also, Thomas Midgley, Jr., Tetraethyl Lead Poison Hazards, Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, Vol. 17, No. 8 August, 1925, p. 827.
[ii] U.S. Public Health Service, Proceedings of a Conference to Determine Whether or Not There is a Public Health Question in the Manufacture, Distribution or use of Tetraethyl Lead Gasoline, PHS Bulletin No. 158, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Treasury Dept., August 1925), p. 6. (Hereafter cited as PHS Conference). Of course, Kettering originally planned to get alcohols fom outside the paraffin series through grain and cellulose.
[iii] U.S. Board Asks Scientists to Find New Doped Gas, New York World, May 22, 1925, p. 1.
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