Analytical Instrumentation

Was Leaded Petrol Ever Safe?

Sep 15 2017 Comments 0

Leaded petrol has been banned in the UK since 1998, slammed for its neurotoxic effects. In some countries, banning leaded petrol has even been associated with a significant drop in crime. So was leaded petrol ever safe? According to its creator Thomas Midgley, tetraethyl lead has no health impacts whatsoever.

"I'm not taking any chance whatever," Midgley asserted. "Nor would I... doing that every day," he declared after washing his hands in leaded petrol at a press conference back in the 1920s.

Turns out, he was wrong. At the time Midgley had just spent several months in Florida recovering from lead poisoning, however many of his workers hadn’t been so lucky.

Lead poisoning in “the loony gas building”

The week before the press conference a worker at one of Midgley’s tetraethyl lead laboratories started hallucinating. He was later admitted to hospital where he quickly died. Within the week four of his colleagues were also dead, with an additional 35 in hospital.

This came as no surprise to whistleblowing workers Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner, who co-published a controversial book titled, ‘Deceit and Denial: The Deadly Politics of Industrial Pollution.” The tetraethyl lead lab earned itself a reputation as "the loony gas building," with worker after worker succumbing to its effects.

General Motors pushes for green light

So how did tetraethyl lead come to be a key component of petrol? While scientists were initially alarmed when General Motors first proposed adding lead to petrol, a government bureau report eventually deemed it safe. In hindsight, the fact that it was funded by General Motors should’ve set off alarm bells.

Ultimately, the report gave tetraethyl lead a clean bill of health, with Frank Howard, vice-president of the Ethyl Corporation hailing leaded petrol a "gift of God."

Meanwhile, health experts like Dr Alice Hamilton argued leaded petrol was a risk not worth taking. She warned that "Where there is lead, some case of lead poisoning sooner or later develops, even under the strictest supervision."

Understanding the "Environmental Kuznets Curve"

Of course, the promise of progress triumphed and lead became a key component of everyday petrol. This has sparked interesting debate over whether there’s a positive relationship between pollution and progress. To some extent, there’s evidence that as countries get richer, they tend to get dirtier, then clean up their act later down the line.

Economists call this the "Environmental Kuznets Curve" which describes the idea that poverty forces the prioritisation of material gains. As income grows, this frees up the scope to create a safer, more comfortable environment.

While lead may have got the green light in the 1920s, safety standards within the petroleum industry are now rigid. For a closer look at that latest technology used to heighten performance without compromising safety, ‘Is Low Field NMR now a “Must Have” Technique for the Modern Petro Industry Laboratory?’ is a must read article.

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