Sunday, January 06, 2013

facts that make eugenic conspiranoid beliefs seem tame by comparison...,

Wired | Author’s note: Most people don’t realize that we knew in the 1920s that leaded gasoline was extremely dangerous. And in light of a Mother Jones story this week that looks at the connection between leaded gasoline and crime rates in the United States, I thought it might be worth reviewing that history. The following is an updated version of an earlier post based on information from my book about early 10th century toxicology, The Poisoner’s Handbook.

In the fall of 1924, five bodies from New Jersey were delivered to the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office. You might not expect those out-of-state corpses to cause the chief medical examiner to worry about the dirt blowing in Manhattan streets. But they did.

To understand why you need to know the story of those five dead men, or at least the story of their exposure to a then mysterious industrial poison.

The five men worked at the Standard Oil Refinery in Bayway, New Jersey. All of them spent their days in what plant employees nicknamed “the loony gas building”, a tidy brick structure where workers seemed to sicken as they handled a new gasoline additive. The additive’s technical name was tetraethyl lead or, in industrial shorthand, TEL. It was developed by researchers at General Motors as an anti-knock formula, with the assurance that it was entirely safe to handle.

But, as I wrote in a previous post, men working at the plant quickly gave it the “loony gas” tag because anyone who spent much time handling the additive showed stunning signs of mental deterioration, from memory loss to a stumbling loss of coordination to  sudden twitchy bursts of rage. And then in October of 1924, workers in the TEL building began collapsing, going into convulsions, babbling deliriously. By the end of September, 32 of the 49 TEL workers were in the hospital; five of them were dead.

The problem, at that point, was that no one knew exactly why. Oh, they knew – or should have known – that tetraethyl lead was dangerous. As Charles Norris, chief medical examiner for New York City pointed out, the compound had been banned in Europe for years due to its toxic nature. But while U.S. corporations hurried TEL into production in the 1920s, they did not hurry to understand its medical or environmental effects.

In 1922,  the U.S. Public Health Service had asked Thomas Midgley, Jr. – the developer of the leaded gasoline process – for copies of all his research into the health consequences of tetraethyl lead (TEL).
Midgley, a scientist at General Motors, replied that no such research existed. And two years later, even with bodies starting to pile up,  he had still not looked into the question.  Although GM and Standard Oil had formed a joint company to manufacture leaded gasoline – the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation - its research had focused solely on improving the TEL formulas. The companies disliked and frankly avoided the lead issue. They’d deliberately left the word out of their new company name to avoid its negative image.

In response to the worker health crisis at the Bayway plant, Standard Oil suggested that the problem might simply be overwork. Unimpressed, the state of New Jersey ordered a halt to TEL production. And because the compound was so poorly understood, state health officials asked the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office to find out what had happened. Fist tap Dale.

3 comments:

arnach said...

What a misbegotten legacy. Thomas Midgley, Jr: Inventor of TEL _and_ Freon.

John Kurman said...

I don't know, man... What about Fritz Haber?

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