Before Tobacco, There Was Leaded Gas

Jamie Lincoln Kitman

Jamie Lincoln Kitman | Feb 01, 2017

While you may be looking for reasons to be cheerful today, here instead is something else to depress you. Ninety-four years ago exactly, on Feb.1, 1923, a car pulled into the Refiners Oil Co., at the corner of Sixth and Main Streets, in Dayton, Ohio, and filled up with a new product known as Ethyl gasoline. Meaning today marks yet another anniversary of the monumentally unfortunate first time gasoline with lead in it was offered for sale to consumers.

Pros: Eliminates engine knock. Cons: Destroys engines, causes brain damage and cancer, never biodegrades, contaminates - - - Hey, we're out of space!

Station owner Willard Talbott was a friend of Charles Kettering, whose General Motors lab had invented leaded gasoline two years earlier, but Ethyl's makers didn't yet publicly acknowledge that their new product contained lead – tetraethyl lead, to be precise, an unusually deadly compound of the well-known heavy metal neurotoxin that never biodegrades. Lead's poisonous effects had been known for 3,000 years, but Ethyl didn't even note its presence in its offering at first, the only claim made for it at the time of launch being that it would stop knock in engines, a not uncommon problem in the 1920s, owing to the increasingly low quality of gasoline. And stop knock it did, by raising what we now know as the "octane" rating of the gasoline. It also destroyed engines and was used in place of known, safer alternatives, but those are stories for another time.

Poison patent holders. (Plazak/Wikipedia)

Unknown and immaterial to most customers was the fact that three and a half cents of each $0.25 gallon would go to the Ethyl Gasoline Corp., a new joint venture formed to exploit lead gasoline's patents by GM (along its controlling shareholder, DuPont) and Standard Oil of New Jersey, the peppy little outfit known today as ExxonMobil. For forty years, these companies shared a royalty on every gallon of "Ethylized" gasoline sold. Many brands besides Standard's Esso offered the extra-poisonous Ethyl gas under license; indeed by the late 1930s it would become ubiquitous around the world, as refiners quickly cottoned to this relatively inexpensive fluid additive that could spare them costly capital expenditures in new and upgraded refinery equipment.

Sure, lead is dangerous. But new refineries are expensive! (Walter Siegmund/Wikipedia)

One downside, however, was that the millions of tons of lead burned in trillions of gallons of gasoline would wind up in the lungs and other organs of billions of peoples, leaving death (cancers, heart attacks, strokes, failures of renal and central nervous systems) and destruction (violent and irrational behaviors, among other personality disorders, IQ deficits and sundry learning disabilities) in its wake.

Another problem was that the science that attested for forty years to its efficacy and salubrious character was funded and approved by the companies involved. Not coincidentally, every bit of the company-backed scientific line was debunked the minute independent scientists looked into it in the 1960s. Before tobacco, before DDT, asbestos and climate change denial, lead gas was there first, the opening 1920s salvo in what might be called the corporate science wars, which rage to this day, with Standard's successor ExxonMobil once again deploying science and its endless malleability, this time to challenge the reality of the greenhouse effect, to sow doubt where there is none.

Fun with lead: A highlight reel.

There has been good news, though. Lead finally came out of automotive gasoline in the 1980s in the USA (with a few exceptions, like NASCAR, who ran with it until 2013!) and many countries that used it into the 21st century (China, Russia, India, South Africa and more) have stopped. Lead still figures heavily in gas for propeller planes in the U.S. though, with real health consequences for those living nearby municipal airports. And of course none of it ever biodegrades, so everything that's been burnt in an engine is still out there. Like all so-called particulate matter, it is tossed and blown by the wind, rain and snow, settling on the ground, on our roads, homes, gardens, rivers, lakes, farms and foodstuffs, where it remains until it is lifted or washed away to its next resting place; millions of tons of lead particles once inert and underground instead waiting for the remainder of time, if need be, for that moment when they will be swallowed, inhaled, absorbed through the skin or otherwise ingested with food and drink.

"The removal of lead from gas has to be considered one of the great public health victories of our time." (Joe Mabel/Wikipedia)

The removal of lead from gas has to be considered one of the great public health victories of our time, as blood lead levels in the U.S. and other lead-free gas countries are uniformly 90% lower than they were. Which isn't to say that lead-based paint and lead pipes don't remain serious problems for large pockets of America; rather it is to report that the dust from leaded gasoline exhaust were the most pervasive agents of sickness and death and their presence is reduced.

"Of course, the very act of calling gasoline today 'unleaded' is a misnomer, as if we were to call plain whole milk 'unchocolate.'"

Of course, the very act of calling gasoline today "unleaded" is a misnomer, as if we were to call plain whole milk "unchocolate." But that's not an accident. The word "unleaded" suggests that lead was removed, thoughtfully, for you. But there is no lead in gasoline until someone puts it there and these famous corporations were that someone. Ninety four years on, they'd rather not talk about it.

Read more about the Secret History of Lead in this award-winning article written by the author in the pages of The Nation.


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