Environmental negligence part 1: Leaded gasoline

Before I start this post, I just want to say that I hope you are all doing okay with regard to the spread of coronavirus. It is important that we take this situation seriously in effort to minimize the risk to yourselves and others.

As a professional scientist, I have to admit that I sometimes struggle with technology’s dual nature. I realize that studying physics and being able to come up with ideas to test in the laboratory is an enormous privilege. But scientific knowledge also comes with substantial weight.

Probably the biggest challenges facing humanity today, environmental damage and climate change, have partly arisen due to the outgrowth of technologies related to the study of electromagnetism and thermodynamics in the 19th century. Eliminating greenhouse gas emissions is a monumental task that is nuanced with all sorts of moral issues that relate to the developing world. In particular, the developing world has not been primarily responsible for much of the anthropogenic greenhouse gasses we see in our atmosphere today, but will likely end up seeing their development stunted as the world attempts to cut emissions.

In this series of posts, I raise some questions pertaining to how we as a society here in the US have dealt with environmental issues in the past and identify a few patterns of behavior. Specifically related to this, I ask whether there exist deep-rooted structural problems and whether there exist options to fix them. I focus on three particular examples (among many!), that of leaded gasoline, chloroflourocarbons (CFCs) and PFOA (Teflon) to illustrate the difficulties in fighting environmental damage, but also how there is some hope in doing so.

For thousands of years, lead has been used for many purposes, most famously for pipes and aqueducts in the Roman empire. Although even the Romans were aware of the toxicity of lead, they continued to use it. Thus, lead poisoning has been in the public consciousness for at least a couple thousand years. In the US, it was thought that low levels of lead exposure did not pose a serious health risk, however. For example, lead had been used in paint for centuries. In the early 1920s, though, something changed. Lead made its way into the air we breathe through the automotive industry as an additive to gasoline due to its anti-knock properties. It was this use of lead, as a gasoline additive, that put lead basically everywhere in the atmosphere and surface ocean water. Despite the well-known health risks of lead to the general public, there were no studies conducted by any government agency or by any of the companies before sales of leaded gasoline were permitted in the marketplace.

Just a couple years after tetraethyl lead (TEL) was included in gasoline, workers at the company producing leaded gasoline (Ethyl Gasoline Corporation, a joint venture between General Motors, DuPont and Standard Oil) started suffering consequences. Some died, some “went crazy” because lead is a neurotoxin and others showed significant mental deterioration. Alexander Gettler and Charles Norris, a toxicologist and the Chief Medical Examiner of New York, were tasked with performing autopsies on four of the workers that had died in relation to work at the company. Their report, published in 1925, showed significant levels of lead in the brain tissue of the victims, more so than in patients that exhibited conventional lead poisoning (i.e. not from TEL). They speculated that the lead in TEL was somehow attracted to brain tissue more than regular lead.

Around the time of their report, New York, New Jersey and the city of Philadelphia all banned the sale of leaded gasoline. Also in 1925, the U.S. Surgeon General formed a task force with the intention of performing a more thorough investigation of the effects of lead on the population, though excluded Gettler and Norris from the committee. Around the same time, Thomas Midgley Jr., one of the inventors of TEL and a scientist at the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation, published a paper on the lack of hazards posed by leaded gasoline to the general public. I hesitate to even mention that this was a massive conflict of interest. In addition to this paper, there were heavy propaganda efforts aimed at the public to make it seem like leaded gasoline was a huge step forward in the automotive industry. Below are a couple examples of advertisements from 1927 and 1953 respectively (notice how lead is never mentioned):

The U.S. Surgeon General ultimately sided with Midgley and industry insiders, citing a single short seven-month study that showed a lack of evidence that TEL was causing harm. The federal government lifted all bans on the sale of leaded gasoline. In a rather foreboding gesture, the task force did acknowledge the possibility that with more cars on the road in the future, the issue would have to be re-visited. This kicking of the can down the lead-coated road would last about 60 years. More about the Surgeon General’s report can be read here (PDF!).

One thing I should mention about the U.S. Surgeon General’s task force is that it abided by what became known as the Kehoe Rule, which puts the burden of proof on showing that leaded gasoline is unsafe. This is in contrast to the precautionary rule, which puts the burden of proof on showing that leaded gasoline is safe if introduced into the public arena.

How did leaded gasoline ultimately get banned from use? This is where the story takes an unlikely turn. Enter Clair Patterson, a geochemist working on trying to date the age of the Earth. At the recommendation of his PhD advisor, Patterson started working on trying to figure out the ratio of lead to uranium in old rocks, as uranium-238 would eventually decay into lead after 4.5 billion years. What Patterson found was startling. He was basically finding lead contaminants everywhere. Whatever rock he looked at, no matter how clean his laboratories were, would always be contaminated. He started to figure out that everything in his lab was contaminated with lead. Distilled water, glassware, you name it, was contaminated. This prevented him from obtaining the correct ratio.

Because of this contamination, Patterson spent years building the world’s first “cleanroom”, that would be lead-free. Below is a rather inspiring image of Clair Patterson scrubbing the lab floor (taken from here):


With his massive effort to create a lead-free zone, Clair Patterson was ultimately able to obtain to the age of the earth: 4.5 billion years. But this isn’t what this story is about.

After going to such lengths to fight off lead contamination, Patterson realized where the lead was coming from. In 1965, Patterson tried to convince the public that leaded gasoline was a major health hazard by publishing Contaminated and Natural Lead Environments of Man. Even though he was the world’s foremost expert on the topic at the time, he was left off a National Research Council research effort to study lead in the atmosphere in 1971. See a pattern (see above about Gettler and Norris)? Once Patterson turned his studies toward lead contamination in food, it became abundantly clear that lead was present in every facet of life on earth.

For his efforts, Patterson was hounded by industrial insiders and refused contracts with many research organizations. But ultimately, he did win his long-fought battle. He was massively helped in this battle by Herbert Needleman, who performed research showing that long exposure to lead in children likely resulted in a lower mental capacity. In 1986, the US phased out leaded gasoline, more than 65 years after the first warnings were put out by scientific watchdogs.

There is much to learn from this particular story, but before I go onto conclude, I would like to recap a couple more historical anecdotes in the days to come that I think we can learn from. More to follow…


*Much of this post was learned through the following references:





Looney Gas and Lead Poisoning: A Short, Sad History



2 responses to “Environmental negligence part 1: Leaded gasoline

  1. The introduction of leaded gasoline was a terrible mistake with consequences we still grapple with today, but I think the issue was more nuanced than you suggest here.

    The key sentence in the AJPH article you cite is this one: “Although everyone [at the 1925 Surgeon General’s conference on leaded gasoline] hoped that science itself would provide an answer to this imponderable dilemma, the reality was that all evidence to this point was ambiguous.” The harmful effects of leaded gasoline were too small and slow-acting to show up in the studies carried out at the time, which were “short-term and, in retrospect, very limited”. There was no firm empirical basis at the time for banning leaded gasoline.

    The reflexive answer to this is that leaded gasoline should not have been introduced until it was proven harmless. “More research is needed!” But this is a wise position only in retrospect, since of course it’s impossible to prove anything harmless. Applying this standard to leaded gasoline would have prevented it from being introduced (good!), but it would also have prevented any other new technology. In the words of Hayhurst, a public health scientist who supported introducing leaded gasoline at the time, such “arguments might also be applied to gasoline and to the thousand and one other poisons and hazards which characterize our modern civilization.”

    The actual mistake was not permitting the sale of leaded gasoline in the first place, but failing to carry out the longer-term followup studies that the Blue Ribbon Committee recommended.


    • Hi Ted, thanks for your comment. In other cases of environmental pollution (which I’ll address in the coming days), I would say that it is indeed more subtle and nuanced. In this case with leaded gasoline, I don’t necessarily think that hindsight is needed. My point is that because:

      1) Lead had been a known neurotoxin for centuries
      2) New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia had already banned its use citing its perils
      3) Workers at the plants (and it turns out Midgley himself later) suffered from lead poisoning
      4) Studies were already conducted showing that high lead levels were present in the workers at those companies (including the work of Gettler and Norris)
      5) And most importantly, the scale of its use in the public sphere (there were already ~20-30 millions cars on the road in the 1920s) (i.e. a small number times a big enough number can still be a big number)

      should have already been enough to require extra diligence in this case. The onus should have been on showing that lead in any amount was safe rather than proving that it wasn’t while continuing usage. As I mention above, for other new chemicals, this case would be more nuanced, but with lead, there was already ample evidence that it was a serious public health danger.

      Indeed, plenty of scientists had the foresight. The entire point of the AJPH article that you cite was to point out that the risks were already known in the 1920s. There were many outspoken scientific critics of leaded gasoline right from its inception. If we are careful in cases like this, foresight should be possible, not just hindsight.


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