Shortly after General Motors founder Billy Durant retook control of his company in 1916, in-house genius Charles Kettering raced into his office with horrific news. According to geologists, at the rate the automotive industry was growing and consuming oil, there was only enough crude left in the world to last until around 1940. Kettering, who believed that in a world without oil General Motors was doomed, was deeply concerned. Durant, a bit more cavalier than Kettering had hoped he’d be, simply replied, “They’ll find more oil before you find another fuel source.”
Kettering went off to create a way to extend what he believed was a finite supply of crude. This seemed to go hand in hand with another project that was critical to increasing automobile sales: As motors became larger, thanks to attempts to increase their power output, engines began knocking. That problem needed correcting. Thomas Midgley, Kettering’s favorite scientist, put together a team to work on an additive for gasoline that would solve both issues.
By late 1921 Midgley had found that adding tetraethyl lead to gasoline immediately improved power and stopped engine knock. Cheap and easily made, this additive seemed to be the ultimate answer to the modern combustion engine. The public was sold on this new miracle additive. It would be marketed as “ethyl gasoline,” wisely omitting the word “lead.”
But all was not well. Midgley had become ill. He left Dayton for a Florida vacation, complaining that he felt his body was not regulating its heat well. A month later he returned home, still sick from what we now know was lead poisoning, but he would recover. Some of his employees wouldn’t: Two died from working with tetraethyl lead, and dozens more literally went insane. These facts weighed heavily on the young scientist; but his boss, Kettering, hired an assistant professor of pathology from the University of Cincinnati, Robert Kehoe, to work on ways to manufacture this additive more safely.
General Motors and Standard Oil of New Jersey would create the Ethyl Corporation to manufacture the additive. But workers making tetraethyl lead at the new Bayway, New Jersey, refinery were going crazy; and in short order, more than 40 were showing signs of lead poisoning, and that’s when the New York Times picked up the story.
The head of the Army’s chemical warfare division knew exactly what was killing some men and sickening scores more. It was lead; and he knew that because it was one of the chemicals the Army had considered using for chemical warfare. A Yale professor weighed in, seconding the General’s statement.
Attempting to refute such “alarmism,” Standard Oil claimed to have commissioned a study subjecting animals to the fumes from ethyl gas for months — and they were all fine. Then Standard added, patronizingly, that those men who had gone insane probably had simply worked too hard. Even so, in the spring of 1925 the Surgeon General called for a conference on lead in our fuels, which concluded that ethyl gas posed no problems for humans. Apparently two things they didn’t do in that conference were visit either the graves of those whom lead had already killed or the workers still suffering from lead poisoning’s effects.
But Robert Kehoe had a solution: Install better ventilation fans in the Delco Laboratories in Dayton and at the Bayway refinery.
What is lead poisoning? Once the body takes lead in, it confuses lead with calcium and uses it as a replacement. At that point, the lead takes over the jobs calcium does within our bodies, but that doesn’t end up well. In children lead retards the brain’s and personality’s development, and is documented as leading to behavior problems later.
But the public didn’t care. People both trusted our government and respected large corporations in those days; if “they” said tetraethyl lead in our gasoline was safe, then it was. Besides, cars were becoming faster and more powerful to boot, and then as now, buyers still love those attributes.
That does not mean that critical issues weren’t arising that could damage the health of billions worldwide.
Lucas Reilly’s exceptional work, “The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of,” lays out the facts of this story from here.
Enter Clair Patterson, an Iowa farm boy who grew up to become an eccentric but brilliant chemist who, during the Second World War, worked on the Manhattan Project at Oak Ridge. He used a mass spectrometer to separate the isotopes of Uranium 235, with which we built our first nuclear weapons.
After the war Patterson was at the University of Chicago at about the time that scientists first claimed that our planet was 3.3 billion years old. But with the sudden advances in science, scientists quickly realized that it was quite possible to find the exact age of Earth. And it could be accomplished by mathematically calculating the radioactive decay of isotopes into atoms of lead. Harrison Brown, a nuclear chemist at the University, created the mathematical calculation and assigned his young protégé Patterson to do the experiments.
They would simply find the oldest rock known, crush it into samples a thousand times smaller than had ever been tested before, and look for the lead numbers. The experiment didn’t work: It’s worth remembering that this was years before the advent of “clean labs” sealed and free of any and all contaminants. In this case Patterson’s lead readings on these rocks were through the roof. So he turned into Suzy Homemaker and cleaned his lab; but the more he cleaned, the more he realized that the entire place was contaminated with lead. But how?
It would take until 1951, five years, before Patterson could get a lab clean enough, with zero lead particles anywhere, that he could finally run his experiments and start zeroing in on the age of our planet. He would move to CalTech and continue the experiments, building an even cleaner lab — many said the cleanest lab in the world at that time. By 1956 he published the age of the world at 4.5 billion years. Patterson’s number is still the accepted science today.
But he didn’t enjoy the fame for long. No, Patterson was absolutely focused on how there could be so much lead contamination, anywhere and everywhere he looked. Patterson also realized that he had been the first to discover how many labs were contaminated; therefore, anyone else doing similar research on anything dealing with lead would always come up with bad studies because they weren’t factoring in the known lead contamination.
“Anyone else,” in this case, would include Robert Kehoe. He was still working for GM and Standard Oil, now earning around $100,000 a year in the mid-Fifties and the so-called Voice of Reason, always dismissing the idea that lead poisoning from fuels was any kind of problem. One of his studies showed that the workers in a refinery who handled tetraethyl lead and those working there who didn’t had identical blood lead levels. So he concluded, incorrectly, was that lead in the human blood stream was quite normal — just like iron in our blood.
In his time, Kehoe was considered one of the most respected researchers in America. Patterson was considered a bit of a nut by many in mainstream science — at least when it came to lead contamination. Then he published a paper in the Archives of Environmental Health suggesting that the human body was carrying around 100 times more lead than in its natural state. Ironically, the publication asked Robert Kehoe to peer review his paper; and Kehoe simply said that Patterson was a geologist and physicist, but not a biologist. He allowed the paper to be published in 1965, correctly believing that scientists and toxicologists would lambast Patterson’s findings.
Patterson, however, was on a mission. The previous year he had gone to Greenland; there he had drilled ice cores to test atmospheric lead by century, going back 2,800 years. By the time his paper was published he was in Antarctica doing the same thing. And the ice cores told the secret: The amount of lead in the atmosphere had increased by 200 – 300 times from 1700 to 1965. The worst of it was that by far most of the atmospheric lead increase had happened in the previous three decades — and that meant only one thing: The entire world was being poisoned by tetraethyl lead in our gasoline supplies.
But even then he wasn’t done; he actually sampled the bones of Peruvian mummies almost 5,000 years old and some from Egypt half that old. Turned out we didn’t have 100 times more lead in our system than our ancestors — we had 600 times more. Patterson and Kehoe would be called to Washington to testify, with Patterson still considered a bit nutty, but with Kehoe’s reputation sinking fast.
Even the newly formed EPA had a problem with Patterson’s research — although, typical of government disconnect, the government’s own doctors were starting to document the major problem of lead in children and the developmental issues it caused. So the EPA called for a cut in the amount of tetraethyl lead in gasoline, and immediately was sued by Ethyl Corporation in 1973. At first the court sided with Ethyl, then the entire Appeals Court heard the case and sided with the EPA. And then the Supreme Court refused to take up the case, leaving it an EPA win.
Then two studies appeared, both giving credit to Clair Patterson’s research and published works, one in the British Lancet, the other in the New England Journal of Medicine. Finally, modern medicine and science had come to the agreement that lead could and did poison individuals at far, far lower levels than ever thought possible before.
But it wasn’t really Clair Patterson’s work that changed gasoline. No, it was the Clean Air Act of 1970. It demanded a massive reduction in automobile emissions; General Motors had created the catalytic converter for use in its 1975 models to meet the mandated deadline, and tetraethyl gasoline would destroy those units.
That’s right, it wasn’t science that changed the equation. It was technology that forced the switch. For decades those who manufactured tetraethyl lead for gasoline defended it as vigorously as big tobacco denied that smoking caused any health issues. And, given the choice between corporations’ making money versus doing the right thing, well, we are a capitalist society. But even in those early days, the EPA and the National Academy of Sciences seemed to reject Clair Patterson’s decades-long study of lead in the atmosphere — with almost the same passion as shown when he infuriated religious Americans by scientifically arriving at the actual age of our planet.
Once lead was taken out of our gasoline in order to put new emission devices on our cars, the nation’s smog problem started to disappear. Even better, just as Patterson had predicted, the levels of lead in the atmosphere worldwide — and in all of our bloodstreams — started a quick and dramatic fall. Only in hindsight was virtually all of science forced to look back and realize that everyone had been wrong but Clair Patterson.
But even here he’s not the hero of the story. No, that would be GM’s Bob Stempel, who headed up the group that created the catalytic converter in virtually no time at all. That’s ultimately what ended the days of leaded gas. Almost 20 years later, Stempel would become Chairman of General Motors. And be fired almost immediately.
Note from Ed: Again, special thanks to Lucas Reilly’s wonderful work, “The Most Important Scientist You’ve Never Heard Of”
© Ed Wallace 2017
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, bestowed by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, “Wheels,” 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org