Leaded Gas Was a Known Poison the Day It Was Invented

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For most of the mid-twentieth century, lead gasoline was considered normal. But lead is a poison, and burning it has had dire consequences
For most of the mid-twentieth century, lead gasoline was considered normal. It wasn't: lead is a poison, and burning it had dire consequences. But how did it get into gasoline in the first place?

The answer goes back to this day in 1921, when General Motors engineer named Thomas Midgley Jr. told his boss Charles Kettering that he'd discovered a new additive which worked to reduce the "knocking" in car engines. That additive: tetraethyl lead, also called TEL or lead tetraethyl, a highly toxic compound that was discovered in 1854. His discovery continues to have impact that reaches far beyond car owners.

Kettering himself had designed the self-starter a decade before, wrote James Lincoln Kitman for The Nation in 2000, and the knocking was a problem he couldn't wait to solve. It made cars less efficient and more intimidating to consumers because of the loud noise. But there were other effective anti-knock agents. Kitman writes that Midgley himself said he tried any substance he could find in the search for an antiknock, "from melted butter and camphor to ethyl acetate and aluminum chloride." The most compelling option was actually ethanol.

But from the perspective of GM, Kitman wrote, ethanol wasn't an option. It couldn't be patented and GM couldn't control its production. And oil companies like Du Pont "hated it," he wrote, perceiving it to be a threat to their control of the internal combustion…
Kat Eschner
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