The sad history of leaded gasoline

On the frosty morning of Dec. 9, 1921, in Dayton, Ohio, researchers at a General Motors lab poured a new fuel blend into one of their test engines. Immediately, the engine began running more quietly and putting out more power.

The new fuel was tetraethyl lead. With vast profits in sight—and very few public health regulations at the time—General Motors Co. rushed gasoline diluted with tetraethyl lead to market despite the known health risks of lead. They named it “Ethyl” gas…

It has been 100 years since that pivotal day in the development of leaded gasoline. As a historian of media and the environment, I see this anniversary as a time to reflect on the role of public health advocates and environmental journalists in preventing profit-driven tragedy…

When GM began selling leaded gasoline, public health experts questioned its decision. One called lead a serious menace to public health, and another called concentrated tetraethyl lead a “malicious and creeping” poison…

…Public health concerns continued to build in the 1970s and 1980s when University of Pittsburgh pediatrician Herbert Needleman ran studies linking high levels of lead in children with low IQ and other developmental problems. Both Patterson and Needleman faced strong partisan attacks from the lead industry, which claimed that their research was fraudulent.

Both were eventually vindicated when, in 1996, the US officially banned the sale of leaded gasoline for public health reasons.

The leaded gasoline story provides a practical example of how industry’s profit-driven decisions—when unsuccessfully challenged and regulated—can cause serious and long-term harm. It takes individual public health leaders and strong media coverage of health and environmental issues to counter these risks.

Deadly practices…and the potential for competition to profit from opposition to such practices vary from industry to industry. As do the opportunities from craft and staff. It’s still appropriate to fight for investigation and regulation at every opportunity.

8 thoughts on “The sad history of leaded gasoline

  1. moss says:

    As I recall, there was at least one major gasoline retailer – I believe it was Amoco – who committed to a NO LEAD policy for many of the right reasons. They never “won” the head-to-head competition. That extra horsepower at lower cost was pretty tempting. But, they owned a niche segment of the market for decades…for the right reasons.

    As time passed, there were always a number of house brands that went the Amoco route until regulations were finallhy changed. I was always able to find some local brand, cheaper than Amoco, that filled the need for higher horsepower unleaded performance.

  2. Fill 'er up says:

    Gas station after restoration: “Head to the town of Pasadena and you’ll find a tiny ice cream shop that’s been converted from an old gas station. It’s incredibly cute and impossible to miss when you drive by.”
    “To add to its charm, they’ve added decorative vintage gas pumps where the original pumps were once located.”
    Note the warning notice on the sides of the pumps: “For use as a motor fuel only CONTAINS LEAD (Tetraethyl)”

  3. Okey-dokey says:

    “Few Seem to Notice Toxic Warning Signs at Shops, Gas Pumps” (Los Angeles Times Feb. 29, 1988)
    “It’s actually kind of silly to have signs all over the place,” said Michael DeLuca as he bought gas at a Unocal 76 station in Los Angeles where notices warned motorists that “detectable amounts” of dangerous chemicals might be present. “What are you going to do? Wear a mask?”
    Gasoline and its vapors can contain at least two of the 29 chemicals covered by the law’s warning requirements that took effect Saturday: benzene, which is a carcinogen, and lead, which can cause birth defects.
    Under Proposition 65, businesses are prohibited from exposing people to toxic chemicals unless they first provide a “clear and reasonable” warning of the danger. Warnings are not required if the chemical does not pose a significant risk by exceeding the safety levels set by the state.”

  4. p/s says:

    Half of US adults were exposed to harmful lead levels as kids, study finds
    Researcher calls findings ‘infuriating’ as team finds significant impact on cognitive development
    “…The scientists from Florida State University and Duke University also found that 90% of children born in the U.S. between 1950 and 1981 had blood-lead levels higher than the CDC threshold. And the researchers found significant impact on cognitive development: on average, early childhood exposure to lead resulted in a 2.6-point drop in IQ.
    The researchers only examined lead exposure caused by leaded gasoline, the dominant form of exposure from the 1940s to the late 1980s, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Leaded gasoline for on-road vehicles was phased out starting in the 1970s, then finally banned in 1996.”

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