7/17 Open Thread: The Willful Poisoning of a Generation
I somewhat cribbed that title from a vaguely remembered piece abut how the USA's fascination with chemical based farming and food preservation as well as chemically enhanced foods was, in essence, a grand scale experiment upon the US populace during a certain period of time. That is true enough, in fact, though the victims of even that mishegoss exceeded a generation. I suspect, upon recollection, that the author felt remedial and curative action was taken by the creation and subsequent "empowerment" of the FDA and EPA, which may even have been true for some short period of time preceding the onset of corporate capture of those agencies and the finalization of corporate ownership of most of the rest of government. Whatever the case, this is not about that.
This is abut the intentional lead poisoning of, admittedly, multiple generations. On those rare occasions when this is written about or discussed, there is generally a ton of pseudo-exculpatory narrative thrown out; the usual misdirection, deflection, lies of omission and other gaslighting tricks that are routine when there is major ass covering to be done. They will be recited and noted in this article because that is, after all, the official approved narrative, which are all now sacred and off limits unless one is a Russian propagandist. Without in any way adding to them, it needs to be admitted that the perpetrators, at the time the crime was initiated, understandably envisioned that the major impacts would be upoon the poor (and the working class, to the extent that they were differentiable back then), and that the immediate impact on adults of middle age or beyond would, on average, not be overly pronounced or noticeable before their expiration date.
This is, in short, the condensed story of tetra-ethyl lead (TEL) and Ethyl Corporation
The Internal Combustion Engine was a wonderful thing, bringing increasing mobility to ever increasing numbers of persons and creating new markets aplenty. It did, unfortunately, have a self limiting drawback. Power output, for any given size (and hence weight) of engine was roughly proportional to the octane rating of the fuel. At higher octane ratings, however, the engines would suffer pre-ignition, also known as knock, a potentially destructive and power sapping condition. This popped up even unto the fifties and sixties, manifested as "engine knock" and a conditin when the engine would continue to run after it was turned off, known as "run-on" or "dieseling". When it occurred, the cognoscenti would shake their head and mutter "bad gas", and the more cogniscent would also, as soon as reasonably possible, check their spark plugs for unseemly deposits that might create hot spots. This was, of course, quite an aggrvation to one's chaffeur and all of the hoi-polloi, but also a great marketing opportunity. However, the internal combustion machine became an important component of innumerable war machines and warfare logistic trains, and that, my friend, was pretty serious fucking business. Luckily, there was a solution, in fact there were several, but all except one were ignored for reasons
Eureka! A GM employee named Thomas Midgely Jr. discovered the anti-knock properties of tetra ethyl lead, possibly in collaboration with, or at least technically under the supervision of his boss, Charles F. Kettering. late in 1921. GM and standard Oil formed a jint venture to make leaded gas, the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation, or Ethyl Corp. By the fifties, "Ethyl" had become slang for high octane gas in the same manner that "Xerox" once came to mean photocopy. High octane gas was vital to our war effort in WWIi, but in the fifties it was discovered to be toxic leading to its phase out in 1976 and elimination in 1996.Oh yes, along the way, in 1924, dosens of employees who handles it were sickened, and 5 died. In 1925, a conference was convened by the government and it was decided to keep making the stuff, because there was no substitute for it and the only risk was to employees who simply needed to be adequately protected.
That narrative isn't completely false, but it is far from true too. You can find it here https://aoghs.org/products/tetraethyl-lead-gasoline/ a short read from an industry cite, natch, and, of course, wikipedia, here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tetraethyllead and here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gasoline . The latter artilce includes the following section, not quite the same tale, but close enugh.
Leaded gasoline controversy, 1924–1925
With the increased use of thermally cracked gasolines came an increased concern regarding its effects on abnormal combustion, and this led to research for antiknock additives. In the late 1910s, researchers such as A.H. Gibson, Harry Ricardo, Thomas Midgley Jr. and Thomas Boyd began to investigate abnormal combustion. Beginning in 1916, Charles F. Kettering began investigating additives based on two paths, the "high percentage" solution (where large quantities of ethanol were added) and the "low percentage" solution (where only 2–4 grams per gallon were needed). The "low percentage" solution ultimately led to the discovery of tetraethyllead (TEL) in December 1921, a product of the research of Midgley and Boyd. This innovation started a cycle of improvements in fuel efficiency that coincided with the large-scale development of oil refining to provide more products in the boiling range of gasoline. Ethanol could not be patented but TEL could, so Kettering secured a patent for TEL and began promoting it instead of other options.
The dangers of compounds containing lead were well-established by then and Kettering was directly warned by Robert Wilson of MIT, Reid Hunt of Harvard, Yandell Henderson of Yale, and Charles Kraus of the University of Potsdam in Germany about its use. Kraus had worked on tetraethyllead for many years and called it "a creeping and malicious poison" that had killed a member of his dissertation committee. On 27 October 1924, newspaper articles around the nation told of the workers at the Standard Oil refinery near Elizabeth, New Jersey who were producing TEL and were suffering from lead poisoning. By 30 October, the death toll had reached five. In November, the New Jersey Labor Commission closed the Bayway refinery and a grand jury investigation was started which had resulted in no charges by February 1925. Leaded gasoline sales were banned in New York City, Philadelphia and New Jersey. General Motors, DuPont, and Standard Oil, who were partners in Ethyl Corporation, the company created to produce TEL, began to argue that there were no alternatives to leaded gasoline that would maintain fuel efficiency and still prevent engine knocking. After flawed studies determined that TEL-treated gasoline was not a public health issue, the controversy subsided.
The facts are that it was known to be toxic and deadly, and that it was known that alternative anti-knock solutions existed, known even to Midgely and Kettering, and almost certainly to the government investigative conference. Said conference, suddenly and arbitrarily decided that it wasn't its job to look into possible alternatives while permitting the continued production on the basis of the fact that there were no alternatives, a self inflicted self-fulfilling prophesy no doubt expounded with many a wink, wink, nudge, nudge, know-what-I-mean. That conference was, for the record, called on behalf of and at the bequest of the oil industry, which feared that local regualtions could ruin their incipient gold mine. We've known about lead for centuries, they knew it was deadly and cumulative, and tetra ethyl lead had been banned in Europe for years because of its toxicity. They knew that alternatives were out there but went along with it because anti-knock agents were needed to get the full economic potential out of the Internal Combustion Engine, and the oil companies wanted it and it only for that purpose. Among other things, one alternative ws terrifying to them - ethanol, which had been used experimentally as a stand-alone fuel for automobiles and which they were afraid might replace gasoline, especailly if it was going to be used as an additive anyway. Besides that, it couldn't be patented. Finally, they were compelled to phase it out because, wait for it, it munged up catalytic converters. It wasn't about our health, but abut the auto industry's health. Some of this is in a very short Brittanica article here: https://www.britannica.com/science/tetraethyl-lead . More is in a short piece by the Smithsonian here https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/leaded-gas-poison-invented-180... which, among other things says the following:
The drawback: it was a known poison, described in 1922 by a Du Pont executive as "a colorless liquid of sweetish odor, very poisonous if absorbed through the skin, resulting in lead poisoning almost immediately." That statement is important, Kitman wrote: later, major players would deny they knew TEL to be so poisonous.
The reference to Kitman is to James Lincoln Kitman who had written an article on the subject for The Nation in 2000.
Lastly there is an article published in Wired on January 5, 2013 titled Looney Gas and Lead Poisoning: A Short, Sad History and located here: https://www.wired.com/2013/01/looney-gas-and-lead-poisoning-a-short-sad-... . By all means, reat that article. The title comes from the fact that all the employees called the product "Looney Gas" and the plant where it was made "the Looney Gas Building" because it made those who worked with it "looney".
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.
Among other things, it leads to a lot of aggression it has recently been revealed, ever increasing amounts in the environment might explain much
It was some fifty years later – in 1986 – that the United States formally banned lead as a gasoline additive. By that time, according to some estimates, so much lead had been deposited into soils, streets, building surfaces, that an estimated 68 million children would register toxic levels of lead absorption and some 5,000 American adults would die annually of lead-induced heart disease. As lead affects cognitive function, some neuroscientists also suggested that chronic lead exposure resulted in a measurable drop in IQ scores during the leaded gas era. And more recently, of course, researchers had suggested that TEL exposure and resulting nervous system damage may have contributed to violent crime rates in the 20th century.
oh yeah, so there it is, we wallowed in that shit. I recall using leaded gas as parts claner and clearly recall the unique smell of gas stations, abandoned gas stations, garages and parking lots.
Image is an ad for Ethyl from a Sunset Magazine, and is misdated in the archive.
Its an open thread so have at it. The floor is yours