The bizarre and fascinating history of lead in gasoline
In the course of reading Kevin Drum’s great piece on lead and crime and writing my reply, I started reading a bit about the history of lead in gasoline, and holy crap it’s fascinating! The guy who invented Ethyl, the lead-based additive to gasoline, also invented chlorofluorocarbons, which just about destroyed the ozone layer. Mild-mannered chemist Thomas Midgley is basically history’s greatest monster. Luckily, he got polio, invented a wire-and-pulley system to get himself out of bed, and then ended up being strangled by it. Seriously!
Meanwhile, workers in the plants that produced Ethyl had hallucinations and went crazy — according to the plant manager, because they were “working too hard.” There are just tons of fascinating details like that. Somebody should make a movie of it. You can read a short, lively account of it here, or a longer, more academic version here [PDF].
Aside from the entertainment value, though, the important thing to note is that there were in fact concerns about the safety of lead additives even back in the 1920s when they were being developed. Big companies colluded with government to cover up and lie about the dangers, thus resulting in untold lost human potential and an enormous crime wave that cost the country billions.
This is the story, over and over. Big money screws the public health and lies about it. The same fight is happening over mercury right now. The same fight is happening over greenhouse gases. The same fight is still happening over lead! We never learn.