It's been so long since I paid any attention, so long since it made any difference, so many years since I had any choice, that I didn't know, and had to run out the garage to check. On my 1995 Ford Ranger, it's still there; on my wife's 2005 Honda Accord, it's not. In that difference, as they say, lies a tale.
In the early years of the automobile, the choice of engines and fuels was far from settled. Although the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine held the upper hand in the United States virtually from the day the Duryea Brothers rolled their first carriage conversion out of the garage, upstart manufacturers, invited by the leeway afforded them by the ability of the low-compression engines of the day to burn fuels of varying purity, created horseless carriages powered by kerosene or various alcohols, produced both in sophisticated manufacturing processes as well as homemade in farm stills from plant and animal wastes. Adventurous entrepreneurs marketed steam and even electric-powered vehicles to challenge the supremacy of the gas-engined cars. One of the inherent detracting characteristics of internal combustion engines used in most cars was an annoying "knock", the result of a phenomenon called pre-ignition, where hot internal parts and deposits inside the combustion chamber caused a premature explosion of the vaporized fuel released into the cylinder.
Auto manufacturers and gasoline refiners devoted considerable effort to finding a way to reduce the percussive knock of their engines to make their product more desirable, not only than the inventions of their competitors, but also more attractive than the entrenched four-legged competition that still dominated the personal transportation market in much of the country. As the search for a solution progressed, virtually nothing was off the table on ideological grounds -- they just needed something affordable that worked.
It was a matter of self-preservation. The people researching a cure for knock reasoned, rightly, that the malfunction caused inefficient burning of fuel, which was not only hard on the engine, but also would more quickly deplete the supply of what many scientists at the time believed to be a limited and dwindling source of fuel. An effective anti-knock agent would allow automotive engineers to design higher-compression, more fuel-efficient engines. They were at heart, some would claim, conservationists.
Charles F. Kettering, founder of Delco, by this time having sold out to General Motors and serving as the head researcher for GM's fuel research project , and his assistants Thomas Midgley and T.A. Boyd initially considered the alcohols to be the substances most likely to produce an effective anti-knock agent, but did not believe alcohol from food crops presented a reliable, stably-priced supply source. Only celluosic biomass crops dedicated solely to producing alcohol fuel additives offered the supply reliability necessary in a potential anti-knock agent.
At the same time, they began to explore some less-promising avenues as well. What followed was a process of scientific investigation that -- despite the long-term consequences of its result -- is studied as a textbook case of orderly scientific experimentation.
The experiments were guided by a peg board with a portion of the periodic table of elements pasted on it. The board helped the researchers compare their tests of already known knock suppressors (such as bromine, iodine, tellurium, tin and selenium) and new fuel additives (such as arsenic and sulfur). Historians have seen it as a beautiful piece of pure research.
The atmosphere in the labs grew more expectant as the pegboard seemed to point the way toward the heavy end of the carbon group: silicon, germanium, tin and lead. Visiting his father in Massachusetts in late October, Midgley had antiknock results from each new test sent via telegraph daily. Tetraethyl tin proved effective, but even more exciting was the prospect of metallic lead at the bottom of the column on the peg board.
When the chemists finally delivered a small amount of tetraethyl lead on the morning of December 9, 1921, the knock in the one-cylinder laboratory engine was utterly silenced. Even diluted to a strength of two or three grams per gallon, or one thousand to one, tetraethyl lead had a remarkable ability to quiet the relentless knocking.
Chemcases.com: Fuels and Society B: 1. Charles Kettering, Thomas Midgley and Tetraethyllead
General Motors quickly partnered with Standard Oil of New Jersey to form a corporation to manufacture and market the product, founding the Ethyl Corporation in 1923 with Kettering as its president. Neither company owning a chemical plant, the new corporation contracted the Du Pont Corporation to produce tetraethyl lead for them.
There was a small potential pitfall with using tetraethyl lead (TEL) to reduce knock -- lead has been known since ancient times to be toxic to humans. It did not take long for this drawback to become manifest.
Reporters could hardly have missed the chain of events occurring at the Standard Oil refinery in Bayway, N.J. in October, 1924, just across New York harbor from what was then the world's largest and most competitive newspaper market. The story, as an unpublished du Pont Corp. report said, was a "natural."
Five men who worked at the Standard refinery suddenly, one by one, went violently insane and were hospitalized. The first died Saturday, Oct. 25, and the county coroner who investigated the case called the district attorney's office. New Jersey officials told reporters they had never seen anything like it., and although it had something to do with the refinery, Standard Oil refused to discuss it with them. Reporters tracked down the chief chemist of the Bayway refinery works, Dr. Matthew D. Mann, who provided the following statement: "These men probably went insane because they worked too hard." The World noted that Mann wrote the statement after 15 minutes of deliberation; the Times found it so extraordinary that Mann was quoted in a secondary headline on the front page. W.G. Thompson, Standard"s consulting physician at the company's headquarters in Manhattan, claimed that he had no knowledge of what had happened. He also insisted: "Nothing ought to be said about this matter in the public interest."
Times and World reporters also found that workers were well aware of the danger at the Bayway plant. Those who volunteered for higher paying jobs in the leaded gasoline works were given mock farewells and funerals. The workers (not the press) called the leaded gasoline additive "loony gas" because it caused hallucinations and delusions of persecution.
Bill Kovarik, Agenda Setting in the 1924 - 1926 Public Health Controversy over Ethyl (Leaded) Gasoline
As news leaked that two-thirds of the 49 employees working with the tetraethyl lead at the refinery were displaying symptoms of the frightening poisoning, newspapers trumpeted the controversy, and Standard Oil officials pursued a campaign of silence and denial, many northeastern states and cities scrambled to ban the sale of leaded gasoline. Dr. Yandell Henderson, a physiologist at Yale University, who had helped develop some of the first chemical weapons used in World War I and was regarded as a leading expert on respiration, automotive exhaust, and gas poisoning, opined that a malfunctioning auto on Fifth Avenue could cause hundreds of pedestrians to drop down dead of TEL poisoning. In fairness, his wildly inaccurate portrayal was based on information he had been given when approached by GM some years earlier about acting as a consultant on the project; at the time GM was considering delivering the lead into the gasoline via a separate tank of pure tetraethyl lead in each car. Once informed the actual method was a 1,000-to-one pre-mixed dilution, he promptly retracted his statement, but it served to provide ammunition for charges of hysteria and alarmism on the part of opponents.
As the controversy evolved, GM, Standard Oil, Ethyl, and Du Pont eventually released statements and produced officials to counter the claims of the other side. Since Kettering himself was in Europe at the time (ironically, researching less toxic alternatives to tetraethyl lead), Thomas Midgley stepped forward to demonstrate for reporters the "safety" of the substance, pouring alleged TEL over his hand and arm, and inhaling the fumes from a vial for an extended time. Given that Midgley had, only a year before, delivered a paper before a scientific conference on the dangers of just such exposure, it is likely the demonstration was a fraud, using glycerine or some similar substance.
The press dutifully reported the assertions of both sides, largely without fact-checking or further analysis, although post-mortem reviews of the coverage show a preponderance of page space given to industry spokesmen.
Dr. Alice Hamilton, the first woman on Harvard's faculty and the only female delegate to the League of Nations' health board, whom we met previously in part 2 of our diaries on the radium dial painters, was one of the leading experts on the effects of lead exposure. Although she was in Europe as the situation unfolded, she is believed to have funneled key scientific information and analysis, as well as inside knowledge of additional, hitherto undisclosed tetraethyl lead deaths and poisonings to a friend, Walter Lippmann, opinion page editor of the Joseph Pulitzer-founded New York World. As the furor mounted over the situation, the government found itself drawn into the fray. Finally, the Surgeon General announced a conference to held May 20, 1925 to hear from "all parties" in the dispute.
It's necessary here to back up a little to provide some context for this conference. It was not something the Surgeon General leapt into willingly; he had to be forced by public pressure. The Progressive Era, it can be argued, ended on March 4, 1921, when Warren G. Harding was sworn in as President of the United States after winning election in the largest landslide in U.S. history. The Harding campaign promised the nation -- weary of war and alarmed by the well-publicized "threats" of socialist and anarchist immigrants and the unions they were organizing -- a return to "Normalcy", an innocuous little word into which one can read pretty much anything ones little heart desires. Like modern Republican buzzwords, it had a very specific meaning to the insiders -- undoing the reforms of the Progressive Era. So as the Harding administration engorged itself on the time-honored pursuit of Republicans in positions of power, that of enriching themselves and their cronies, they also pursued policies of relieving commercial and industrial interests of the annoyances of regulations and public accountability.
By 1925, Harding was dead of an apparent heart attack and succeeded by his vice-president, Calvin Coolidge, a passive-government champion whose reputation Reagan Republicans of the 1980s invested much effort in resurrecting. Nothing in the administration's Progressivism-dismantling agenda changed with Coolidge's ascension. In that climate, the conference was convened.
A conference like this was not the kind of thing that had traditionally been a part of the office of the Surgeon General's purview. At that time attached to the Treasury Department, the chief duty of the Surgeon General was maintaining quarantine facilities at U.S. ports. He protested, likely correctly, that his office had no authority for monitoring or regulating harmful substances in either the workplace or the environment. No one in the federal government did. Federal legislation that allowed government officials to control such things did not exist. Only the 20-year-old Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 broke any kind of ground in this area of regulation. Now, the office would mediate a controversial showdown between powerful industry representatives and tenacious public health advocates.
Over 100 representatives of labor groups, oil companies, universities, government agencies and news organizations crowded into a U.S. Treasury Dept. auditorium May 20, 1925, to hear arguments about tetraethyl lead. The Interior Secretary, the Assistant Secretary of Treasury, the Surgeon General, and Charles Kettering, president of Ethyl Gasoline Corp., were listed as principal speakers; others from labor, universities and industry are listed in specific panels.
Bill Kovarik, "Charles F. Kettering and the 1921 Discovery of Tetraethyl Lead In the Context of Technological Alternatives" (PDF)
Thomas Midgley had told the press, presaging the argument officials of GM, Standard Oil, Ethyl, and Du Pont would make to the conference, "Knock is the one important thing which has for a generation past prevented the building of more important automotive engines." A few weeks earlier, even as his mentor, Kettering, evaluated alternatives in Europe, he had insisted to a conference of chemists, "So far as science knows at the present time, tetraethyl lead is the only material available which can bring about these [anti-knock] results, which are of vital importance to the continued economical use by the general public of all automotive equipment... " (This despite the fact that competitors were already dabbling in a plethora of alternatives with reasonable success.) At the conference, Frank Howard of Standard Oil asserted, "Present day civilization rests on oil and motors... We do not feel justified in giving up what has come to the industry like a gift from heaven on the possibility that a hazard may be involved in it..."
A few moments later, Grace Burnham stood up said: "It was no gift of heaven for the 11 who were killed by it and the 149 who were injured." (Actually, 17 men had been killed and many more had been injured). The Times also briefly took notice of Alice Hamilton who "urged the men connected with the industry to put aside the lead compound entirely and try to find something else to get rid of the knock."
The World's May 21 story described the decision to name a committee and discussed the "attack" on "doped fuel." The story did not include the Howard - Burnham confrontation over the "gift of heaven," and unlike the Times, the World did not attempt to provide an overview of the conference. It merely piled up facts about one aspect of the event -- the "damning" evidence from the Columbia University study that was presented at the conference. In its next story, on May 22, the World emphasized the search for a substitute to tetraethyl lead, quoting Alice Hamilton: "It would be foolish to talk of the industrial value of tetraethyl lead, when there is a health hazard involved. Men who could discover the fuel value of tetraethyl certainly could invent or discover something equally efficient and in no way dangerous. American chemists can do it if they will." Hamilton's idea that substitutes could be found flatly contradicted Midgley's assertion that there were no substitutes for tetraethyl lead.
Bill Kovarik: Agenda Setting in the 1924 - 1926 Public Health Controversy over Ethyl (Leaded) Gasoline
The conference adjourned after just one day of hearings, taking only testimony on the benefits and dangers of the tetraethyl lead additive, and not the anticipated investigation of alternatives. Industry representatives assured the conference that new processes being implemented in the refineries (despite some initial disasters) removed the danger to workers, and that the concentrations being used in the fuel presented no risk to consumers filling their tanks. A committee was appointed to study the impacts of leaded gasoline, with representatives of industry, public health, academia, and medicine, with a report ordered within six months. Public health advocates argued that six months was far too little time to perform adequate studies of any but the shortest-term effects of the product, but the industry supporters, arguing that the uncertainty created by a lengthy delay in resolving the issue would do irreparable harm to the industry, prevailed.
[The] committee of experts report, issued in January of 1926 ... concluded that there were "no good grounds for prohibiting the use of Ethyl gasoline." However, the committee did caution: "It remains possible that if the use of leaded gasolines becomes widespread, conditions may arise very different from those studied by us which would render its use more of a hazard than would appear to be the case from this investigation.... The committee feels this investigation must not be allowed to lapse."
Bill Kovarik: Agenda Setting in the 1924 - 1926 Public Health Controversy over Ethyl (Leaded) Gasoline
There were, however, no further investigations. The report was touted by proponents of tetraethyl lead as a "clean bill of health" proving the safety of their product. Most cities and states that had banned leaded gas at the beginning of the controversy now lifted the restrictions. As GM, Standard Oil, Ethyl, and Du Pont surveyed the landscape, where competitors were actively researching anti-knock agents to compete with TEL, the companies made a decision to abandon their initial strategy of keeping Ethyl gasoline an exclusive offering of Standard of New Jersey and a couple of other select oil companies, and offering their proprietary product for sale to all comers. Ethyl became the industry standard and research for alternatives, for all practical purposes, ceased.
It was a door open for a brief moment, and then it closed. Before the decade of the 1920s was out , the U.S. economy cratered, as the stock market lost 80% of its value, GDP plunged by 45% over the next four years, and almost 30% of the labor force was thrown out of work. Then, as the country was just clawing its way out of the dismal pit of the economic depression against which all others would be measured, the world exploded into another War to End All Wars (that, again, didn't), and then the country faced off against the Soviet Union in a series of shadowy proxy wars backed up by the threat of nuclear annihilation at the first false move by either side. There were seemingly far more urgent issues facing the country than the potential harm from a couple grams of lead in each gallon of gasoline.
It would be another four decades before the nation was prepared to deal with the pollution that had been building all through the industrial age. In a period where much of the public came to believe, as General Motors' then-president Charles Erwin Wilson told a senate confirmation hearing in 1953, that "what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa," there was little pressure to re-evaluate choices made a generation before.
But by the middle of the century the United States had become a filthy place. People dropped dead in the streets from deadly smogs, rivers burned, and oil gushed up from the bottom of the sea. The public was realizing they were being poisoned, and it was largely the business interests of the country who were doing it. A series of increasing stringent environmental laws were enacted during the sixties, leading to the Clean Air Act of 1966 and the Clean Air Amendments of 1970, the Clean Water Act of 1972, and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970.
At the same time, a crack opened in the veneer of invincibility enjoyed by the auto industry practically since its inception, as a 31-year-old consumer activist named Ralph Nader created a sensation with an exposé titled Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile in 1965. Unsafe at Any Speed laid out what was to become an all-too-familiar narrative, of powerful industry giants quashing attempts to introduce safety features; designing for style at the expense of safety; creating built-in safety hazards by cutting corners to save money; cultivating the complicity of the traffic safety establishment in blaming drivers for accidents and ignoring obvious design shortcomings; and ignoring fuel economy and pollution in designing vehicles.
Although Unsafe at Any Speed did not address lead specifically, it had plenty to say about the pollution caused by automobiles:
[M]ore than half of the Los Angeles air pollution problem is caused by automotive exhausts. The situation is not limited to Los Angeles; cars, buses, and trucks contribute half the air pollution in the United States. This pollution contains the most serious toxic contaminants which are associated with a significantly higher incidence of morbidity and mortality from emphysema, chronic bronchitis, lung cancer, and heart disease. In property damage due to air pollution, the United States Public Health Service estimates a loss of roughly sixty-five dollars per capita each year, or over eleven billion dollars altogether. Pollution corrodes metals, deteriorates rubber products, erodes concrete and building stone, soils a great variety of materials, and deposits dust and soot on highly sensitive machinery and instruments. The total quantity of pollutants belched forth by motor vehicles in this country last year included over fourteen million tons of hydrocarbons, seventy-five million tons of carbon monoxide, and four million tons of oxides of nitrogen.
Ralph Nader, Unsafe at Any Speed: The Designed-In Dangers of the American Automobile
While the book did not stop the seemingly endless parade of automotive industry executives marching up to Capitol Hill to inform Congress that the American People did not want safety, did not want economy, did not want cleaner emissions in their cars, it did stop a growing number of people from believing them.
Three years after the creation of the EPA, and almost fifty years after the deaths of five workers at Standard Oil's Bayway refinery near Elizabeth, New Jersey, the agency issued the first rules restricting lead in gasoline.
[EPA press release - November 28, 1973]
Environmental Protection agency Administrator Russell E. Train today announced the promulgation of final regulations to protect public health by reducing the amount of lead in all grades of gasoline.
The new regulations restrict the average lead content, measured quarterly, in all grades of gasoline produced by any refinery to 1.7 grams per gallon (gpg) by July 1, 1975, 1.2 grams per gallon by July 1, 1976, 0.9 grams per gallon by July 1, 1977, and 0.6 grams per gallon by July 1, 1978.
According to EPA, a significant portion of the urban population, particularly children, are over-exposed to lead through a combination of sources including food, water, air, leaded paint, and dust. Although leaded paint is a primary source of exposure for poisoning in children, leaded gasoline is also a significant source of exposure which can be readily controlled. The total amount of lead used in gasoline amounts to well over 200,000 tons a year.
Environmental Protection Agency: EPA Requires Phase-Out of Lead in All Grades of Gasoline
During the Reagan Administration, plans were secretly put in place to rescind the lead regulations, but EPA Administrator Ann Gorsuch indiscretely blabbed of the plans to an industry insider, who launched a premature and altogether-too-public celebration. The firestorm unleashed in response to the leaked news forced the administration to not only cancel the plans, but, in effect, caused the phase-out to be sped up.
On January 29, 1996, the EPA announced the 25-year process of phasing lead out of all fuel for on-road vehicles was complete. No gasoline containing lead could be sold in the United States (except in some off-road uses, including aircraft, racing cars, farm equipment, and marine engines).
Since the virtual disappearance of leaded gas in the United States [...] the mean blood-lead level of the American population has declined more than 75 percent. A 1985 EPA study estimated that as many as 5,000 Americans died annually from lead-related heart disease prior to the country's lead phaseout. According to a 1988 report to Congress on childhood lead poisoning in America by the government's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, one can estimate that the blood-lead levels of up to 2 million children were reduced every year to below toxic levels between 1970 and 1987 as leaded gasoline use was reduced. From that report and elsewhere, one can conservatively estimate that a total of about 68 million young children had toxic exposures to lead from gasoline from 1927 to 1987.
Jamie Lincoln Kitman , "The Secret History of Lead", The Nation, March 2000 (PDF)
The action of the EPA on January 26, 1996 rendered the "Unleaded Fuel Only" warnings that had graced the fueling compartments of American cars since the mid-seventies obsolete. With the 1997 model year the EPA rescinded the regulation requiring automobile makers to apply the warnings. My little pick-up truck is the next-to-last year in which the warnings, along with a number of other regulatory requirements related to unleaded fuel, were required. There was no more lead in gasoline. Unleaded fuel was all that could be sold. By regulation. And we were better off for it.
UPDATE: Fantastic first-person account from inside the EPA from DieselKitty:
[new] Not Just Catalytic Converters! (1+ / 0-)
I was involved in the EPA studies that resulted in the phase-out and eventual banning of leaded gasoline. At that time, the lead industry had a major disinformation campaign underway claiming that valve seats on older engines would be damaged by using unleaded gasoline. It was my job to look into that and other effects. SAE Paper No. 860090 is a review of the good and (mostly) bad effects of lead on vehicles.
My review showed that when engines were operated at high load for long periods, the oxide on the valve seat could wear away, allowing the valve to micro-weld to the seat when it banged down, and then jerking loose microscopic pieces of the seat when it pushed back up. Once it started, this "valve seat recession" would destroy the cylinder head in short order. Lead deposits on the valve seat acted like flour on a pastry board, keeping the valve from sticking. So far, that's what the industry had been claiming. However, my review further documented that this was ONLY a problem if you ran the engine continuously at high speed and load for a long time -- that is, in formula 1 racing or dynamometer testing, but not in typical automotive service. In fact, I was able to show that quite a few organizations (including the U.S. Army!) had already shifted all of their older vehicles to unleaded gasoline, as it was too much trouble to provide both leaded fuel for the old and unleaded fuel for the newer vehicles.
My review ALSO showed that lead oxide deposits formed on spark plugs, corroding them and shorting them out, and on exhaust valve seats. Channels formed in the deposits would allow exhaust gas to leak out during combustion, damaging the valve. To combat these deposits, chlorine and bromine compounds were used in addition to TEL, in a mixture called "motor mix". The chlorine and bromine helped scavenge the lead deposits, but also formed acids in the oil (reducing oil life), and corroded exhaust pipes. Overall, the engine and vehicle damage due to the lead additives was much more important than the valve seat recession issue.
While I was looking into the engine issues, an EPA staffer named Joel Schwarz (now a fomer McArthur fellow at Harvard School of Public Health) was doing epidemiologic studies of lead impacts on health. He found that it was MUCH worse than previously thought, at blood lead levels that had previously been considered safe. The main impacts were mental retardation, deafness, and other neurological problems in children, and high blood pressure in adults -- leading to stroke and heart attacks.
When the Reagan administration came into office, they trumpeted their plans to apply cost-benefit analysis to environmental regulations, and Anne Gorsuch gave a speech to a small refiner's conference where she said that the lead regulations were on their way out. Then Joel Schwarz and an EPA economist named Hugh Pitcher, published their report showing that the benefits of eliminating lead in gasoline were more than ten times the costs, and the evil bitch was hoist with her own petard. EPA wound up adopting regulations that dropped the lead content down to 0.1 gram per gallon very quickly, then eliminated it entirely ten years later.
Average blood lead levels in the U.S. and other countries have come down dramatically with the elimination of leaded gasoline. A large part of the drop in heart attacks since the '70s is now thought to be due to lower blood lead concentrations.
Since the work in the U.S., I've been able to contribute to government decisions to phase out lead in five other countries: Thailand, Peru, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Sri Lanka, and I wrote a report for USAID on why and how countries should ban lead in their gasoline. The arguments in each case were the same -- "but the lead companies tell us that the unleaded gas will damage the older engines!" In none of these cases was there actually any widespread engine damage due to unleaded fuel.
"My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right" -- Sen. (and Major General) Carl Schurz, 1872
by Diesel Kitty on Mon Feb 14, 2011 at 12:56:47 AM PST
And that, dear Kossacks, is where regulation comes from -- not from bored bureaucrats sitting in an office in Washington trying to think up ways to make life miserable and expensive for some innocent and unsuspecting businessman, but from real human suffering and tragedy brought about, all too often, by people who shirk what should be obvious responsibilities, who neglect basic diligence, who sacrifice safety for profit. They bring suffering on those who trust them and their products, and society adopts measures to make sure it never happens again. We have to forcethem, through regulation, to behave as they should have been behaving all along. That's how regulation came to be.
Previous installments of How Regulation came to be: