Friday, May 19, 2017

Lead in the Atmosphere and Lessons for Fossil Fuels

The wonderfully well-written book Merchants of Doubt (also a very good documentary) details the anti-science activities of a number of industries - the tobacco industry, manufacturers of CFCs, and fossil fuel corporations, to name a few. I was recently reminded of another one which is not included in their list, one which did an enormous amount of damage and might have been the corporation that made the blueprint for the others - the Ethyl Corporation.

When automobiles started becoming popular in the early part of the twentieth century, one of the problems that manifested itself was how engines would begin to make a noise known as 'knocking' that could make the entire car shudder. An engineer named Thomas Midgley, Jr., working for General Motors, found the compound tetraethyl lead, when added to gasoline, would stop the knocking. In 1923, General Motors, Du Pont, and Standard Oil of New Jersey formed the corporation Ethyl Gasoline Corporation, now known as Ethyl Corporation, to make and distribute tetraethyl lead. The introduction of lead to automobile emissions led to widespread lead contamination, a neurotoxic condition. The following quote comes from the book, A Short History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson. You may find that the story line sounds familiar.

     "Almost at once production workers began to exhibit the staggered gait and confused faculties that mark the recently poisoned. Also almost at once, the Ethyl Corporation embarked on a policy of calm but unyielding denial that would serve it well for decades. As Sharon Bertsch McGrayne notes in her absorbing history of industrial chemistry, Prometheans in the Lab, when employees at one plant developed irreversible delusions, a spokesman blandly informed reporters: "These men probably went insane because they worked too hard." Altogether at least fifteen workers died in the early days of production of leaded gasoline, and untold numbers of others became ill, often violently so; the exact numbers are unknown because the company nearly always managed to hush up news of embarrassing leakages, spills, and poisonings. At times, however, suppressing the news became impossible, most notably in 1924 when in a matter of days five production workers died and thirty-five more were turned into permanent wrecks at a single ill-ventilated facility.
     "As rumors circulated about the dangers of the new product, ethyl's ebullient inventor, Thomas Midgley, decided to hold a demonstration for reporters to allay their concerns. As he chatted away about the company's commitment to safety, he poured tetraethyl lead over his hands, then held a beaker of it to his nose for sixty seconds, claiming all the while that he could repeat the procedure daily without harm. In fact, Midgley knew only too well the perils of lead poisoning; he had himself been made seriously ill from overexposure a few months earlier and now, except when reassuring journalists, never went near the stuff if he could help it."
Source: A Brief History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson, 2003, pg 150-151

Amazingly, Thomas Midgley also invented chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that are responsible for the destruction of the ozone layer, which is discussed in The Merchants of Doubt.

A geologist by the name of Clair Patterson used the ratio of lead to uranium in rocks to determine the age of the planet - about 4.5 billion years. During his work, Patterson realized there was considerable lead contamination in his samples and wound up using meteorites to reach his final figure. In the process, he established the first sterile lab. Wanting to determine the source of the contamination, he invented the process of using ice cores for atmospheric science. He obtained ice cores and tested the different layers, finding out there was almost no lead at all in the atmosphere before 1923. Patterson made it his life work to address the problem after that. In this he was successful. The Clean Air Act of 1970 came about because of his work and leaded gasoline was banned in the US as of 1986. Lead levels in the blood of Americans dropped nearly 80 percent immediately after that. Unfortunately, lead does not leave the system once it's inside the body, so those of us alive today have as much as 625 times as much lead in our bodies as our ancestors.

But, Patterson paid a price. Ethyl Corporation had powerful friends, including a US Supreme Court Justice. Patterson lost research funding and he was not invited to scientific conferences. Ethyl Corporation offered to endow a chair at Caltech if they would fire Patterson. Ethyl still contends "that research has failed to show that leaded gasoline poses a threat to human health or the environment."

The similarities to the anti-science climate change deniers of today is unmistakable. And, the lesson appears to be that we will need to enact some kind of legislation in order to address the problem.

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