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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Untold Story of Leaded Gasoline, Pt. 1

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood speaks with Journalist Jamie Kitman about his research into the hidden history of leaded gasoline. A lead additive developed in the 1920s by DuPont, General Motors and Standard Oil to control engine knock introduced millions of tons of toxic lead into the environment. In an article published this month in The Nation magazine, Mr. Kitman says the companies knew of the possible health effects of their product but suppressed the information.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. It was a corporate scheme that polluted the world on a grand scale, and the three titans of American business responsible have yet to answer for their actions. So writes journalist Jamie Kitman in the cover story of the March 20th issue of "The Nation" magazine, that chronicles how lead came to be added to our gasoline supply. In an investigation that lasted a year and a half, Mr. Kitman uncovered the story of a 1920s pact of General Motors, Standard Oil, and DuPont, which patented and sold a gasoline additive called tetraethyl lead, and suppressed information on its hazards. The compound would soon become ubiquitous in the U.S. and around the world, even though lead was a notorious poison, especially for children. GM and Standard Oil joined together in 1924 to form the Ethyl Corporation to produce the toxic additive, which was designed to cure engine knock caused by a premature combustion of fuel. But Mr. Kitman says the story really began in 1916. That's when General Motors purchased the laboratory of inventor Charles Kettering.

KITMAN: At the time of the purchase they were most enthusiastic about using ethanol, or grain alcohol, as an additive to gasoline to cure engine knock.

CURWOOD: It works, doesn't it?

KITMAN: It works great, and in fact it works so great that in 1921 Kettering's trusted aide, Thomas Midgley, drove a car that was fueled by a blend of 70 percent gasoline and 30 percent ethanol to a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers in Indianapolis from his lab in Dayton to demonstrate it.

CURWOOD: So alcohol works fine, but GM seems to have some sort of corporate amnesia shortly after this trip to the Society of Automotive Engineers. And they seem to forget about ethanol research and turn to lead. What happened?

KITMAN: Making lead, while it was a desperately dangerous enterprise, was a relatively simple process. Dictating a large supply of ethanol was somewhat harder for General Motors to do. But more importantly, it couldn't be patented. You know, people had been making ethanol throughout history. Any idiot with a still in his back yard could make it, and of course there were a lot of stills then because this was in the time of prohibition. And the DuPonts, who owned General Motors, were an unusually profit-oriented bunch of guys. And the directors of General Motors and DuPont cottoned to the fact that, if they could make lead ubiquitous because they had patented it, that they would earn a royalty on every gallon of gasoline that was sold -- which in fact was the case until General Motors and Standard Oil sold Ethyl in 1962.

CURWOOD: So this was all about short-term profits.

KITMAN: Correct. Within a dozen years, 90 percent of all gasoline sold in America would have lead in it.

CURWOOD: In collecting that royalty on the ethyl lead, what kind of money are we talking about in today's terms?

KITMAN: In today's terms, you know, I couldn't give you an exact figure. I know that at the time they were hoping to make three cents a gallon gross on it, but they knew that they were going to be making hundreds of millions of dollars in the 1920s. In fact, there is an interesting letter that Charles Kettering received from Thomas Midgley , who's repaired to Florida to recover from his own bout of lead poisoning, wherein he spells out the economics and says, "Dear Boss," you know, "I think we ought to get into this business right away. Look at how much money we can make."

CURWOOD: Now, everyone at GM and at DuPont and Standard Oil knew just how toxic this lead additive was. The original researcher, as you mentioned, he got poisoned from it. They had deaths in the plants putting this together. Why did they want to go forward with something that seems so dangerous and so toxic?

KITMAN: The fundamental tone for things was set by the DuPont family. They had an extremely high threshold for making and selling dangerous products. It's well to remember that they spent the entire 19th century selling gunpowder. And coming out of World War I, they had made so much money selling gunpowder that they could afford to buy General Motors.

CURWOOD: Now, of course the factory and lab exposure is one thing. But what did the companies say would happen if the lead was used and came out of the tailpipe?

KITMAN: They took several positions, ultimately. One was that the lead would stay in the engine and the exhaust system and wouldn't enter the street. The next position was that even if it did enter the atmosphere, it wouldn't really be a problem because it wouldn't enter people's bodies. Then they later took the position that if it did enter people's bodies, it didn't matter because high lead loads were normal in human beings.

CURWOOD: Let me see if I have this right. First they said it wouldn't leave the car. Then they said if it left the car, it wouldn't get into people. Then they said if it got into people, it wouldn't hurt them. What did they say to the research that shows that lead is highly toxic to people?

KITMAN: There seems to be complete disconnect. People knew that lead was poison 3,000 years ago; and in the years immediately preceding this, lead had been outlawed in paint in several European countries. There was a lot of current science in the United States. And indeed, they had been contacted by the heads of many schools of public health in America, warning them that tetraethyl lead was a toxin. They seemed to make the case that if it came out in a diffused form, that it wouldn't have the same effect as anything else. It defied common sense, but it was a different time, I think. And it's important to remember that, while people had this suspicion, nobody had ever made leaded gasoline before. So you couldn't prove exactly that it was the lead in gas that was causing any effect -- certainly in the short time that was given to the anti-lead forces to make their case, which was short indeed.

CURWOOD: Where was the federal government's research, or studies from academic, throughout this time? In your article you wrote that General Motors contracts the Federal Bureau of Mines to research the dangers of leaded gasoline.

KITMAN: People were actually dying at GM, Standard, and DuPont tetraethyl lead plants. They started to search around to get some science that defended their position. They were largely rebuffed by academics, who objected to the restrictions they wanted to put on them. And then they started approaching government agencies. The Public Health Service, in what was a sad day for the world, really, declined to study it. They said it would be too hard. And suggested that General Motors approach the Bureau of Mines, which was in the habit of receiving monies from industry to conduct studies for them, and was happy to accept money to do these types of studies. The Bureau of Mines saw its role almost in a promotional vein, rather than in a regulatory aspect.

CURWOOD: What kind of control, if any, did General Motors or the Ethyl group have over the research that came out of the Bureau of Mines?

KITMAN: Ultimately they had veto power over the research of the United States government. In their contract they were able to establish that only they would control the timing of the release, the setting, and, in fact, the fact of the release itself. If the findings weren't satisfactory to General Motors, they reserved the right to kill them.

CURWOOD: So, in essence, General Motors and the lead ethyl group were able to buy regulators.

KITMAN: Well, that's one way of looking at it, yes.

CURWOOD: Journalist Jamie Kitman , author of an expose published this month in The Nation magazine on the history of leaded gasoline. When we continue, more of our conversation with Mr. Kitman , including the surprising effects of leaded gas on cars. Keep listening to Living on Earth.



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