The Lead Conspiracy

Update: March 19, 2023

How much money would be enough compensation to poison yourself? Not enough to kill you, but enough to make you seriously ill. Suppose you could earn millions of dollars for getting mildly poisoned and then you could afford to retire early and get the best medical care money can buy.  You could live in luxury, eating organic foods in a private eco-reserve with a personal trainer. 

Some people lie and cheat in order to poison the world including themselves in order to get big profits.  Thomas Midgley did it.  He patented Tetra-Ethyl Lead (TEL) as a gasoline additive. This was one of the worst environmental mistakes in history from a cost-benefit perspective. Other mistakes have been bigger like the effects of carbon on global warming, but other major mistakes also carried much larger flows of benefits. TEL was highly profitable because it was patented, but other alternatives worked about as well  such as abundant, unpatentable ethyl alcohol which is so non-toxic, it is the active ingredient in beer and wine.

In Midgely’s quest to promote TEL, he gave himself acute lead poisoning and had to convalesce for months in Florida. He did it in spite of the fact that it was common knowledge that lead is extremely toxic and TEL is more dangerous than ordinary lead because TEL is much more absorbable in the body. For example, one of Midgely’s business colleagues, Pierre du Pont, who ran the Du Pont Corporation, had written in 1922 that TEL is “a colorless liquid of sweetish odor, very poisonous if absorbed through the skin, resulting in lead poisoning almost immediately.” The same year, a lab director with the US Public Health Service wrote that TEL was a “serious menace to public health” and that “several very serious cases of lead poisoning have resulted” among workers in the pilot production runs.  The US Surgeon General, H.S. Cumming, wrote to Pierre to say,

“since lead poisoning in human beings is of the cumulative type resulting frequently from the daily intake of minute quantities, it seems pertinent to inquire whether there might not be a decided health hazard associated with the extensive use of lead tetraethyl in engines.”

Then five workers died at a TEL factory from lead poisoning and the press found out.  Over 80% of workers at the factory were afflicted with symptoms of severe lead poisoning but there were only very weak laws about worker protections because each person’s safety was seen as their own personal responsibility in the old days. 

Lucas Reilly paints a vivid picture of what happened at Midgely’s factory that got the attention of the press and motivated him to poison himself and lie about bathing in TEL:

Walter Dymock didn’t mean to jump out his second-story bedroom window. He was queasy, not out of his mind. But on a mild October night in 1923, shortly after Dymock groggily tucked himself into bed, something within him snapped. Like a man possessed, Dymock rose, fumbled through the dark, opened his window, and leapt into his garden.

Hours later, a passerby discovered him lying in the dirt, still breathing. He was hurried to a hospital.

Dymock wasn’t alone. Many of his coworkers were acting erratically too. Take William McSweeney. One night that same week, he had arrived home feeling ill. By sunrise, he was thrashing at phantoms. His family rang the police for help—it would take four men to wrap him in a straitjacket. He’d join his co-worker William Kresge, who had mysteriously lost 22 pounds in four weeks, in the hospital.

A few miles away, Herbert Fuson was also losing his grip on reality. He’d be restrained in a straitjacket, too. The most troubling case, however, belonged to Ernest Oelgert. He had complained of delirium at work and was gripped by tremors and terrifying hallucinations. “Three coming at me at once!” he shrieked. But no one was there.

One day later, Oelgert was dead. Doctors examining his body observed strange beads of gas foaming from his tissue. The bubbles “continued to escape for hours after his death.”

“ODD GAS KILLS ONE, MAKES FOUR INSANE,” screamed The New York Times. The headlines kept coming as, one by one, the four other men died. Within a week, area hospitals held 36 more patients with similar symptoms.

All 41 patients shared one thing in common: They worked at a… refinery in Bayway, New Jersey, that produced tetraethyl lead, a gasoline additive that boosted the power of automobile engines. …Factory laborers joked about working in a “loony gas building.” When men were assigned to the tetraethyl lead floor, they’d tease each other with mock-solemn farewells and “undertaker jokes.”

They didn’t know that workers at another tetraethyl lead plant in Dayton, Ohio, had also gone mad. The Ohioans reported feeling insects wriggle over their skin. One said he saw “wallpaper converted into swarms of moving flies.” At least two [workers had previously] died there as well, and more than 60 others fell ill, but the newspapers never caught wind of it.

This time, the press pounced. Papers mused over what made the “loony gas” so deadly. One doctor postulated that the human body converts tetraethyl lead into alcohol, resulting in an overdose. An official for Standard Oil maintained the gas’s innocence: “These men probably went insane because they worked too hard,” he said.

One expert, however, saw past the speculation and spin. Brigadier General Amos O. Fries, the Chief of the Army Chemical Warfare Service, knew all about tetraethyl lead. The military had shortlisted it for gas warfare, he told the Times. The killer was obvious—it was the lead…

Lead makes humans sick because the body confuses it with calcium. The most abundant mineral in the human body, calcium helps oversee blood pressure, blood vessel function, muscle contractions, and cell growth. …In the brain, calcium ions bounce between neurons to help keep the synapses firing. But when the body absorbs lead, the toxic metal swoops in, replaces calcium, and starts doing these jobs terribly—if at all.

The consequences can be terrifying. Lead interferes… damaging DNA and killing neurons. Neurotransmitters, the chemical paperboys of the brain, stop delivering messages and start murdering nerve cells. …Lead poisoning is rarely caught in time. The heavy metal debilitates the mind so slowly that any impairment usually goes unnoticed until it’s too late.

It was still a PR nightmare, so the inventor of TEL and company Vice President, Thomas Midgely, made public demonstrations of rubbing TEL on his skin in front of reporters to fool them into thinking that it is nontoxic.

The celebrated engineer… who had only recently been forced to leave work to recover from lead poisoning, proposed to demonstrate that TEL was not dangerous in small quantities, by rubbing some of it on his hands. Midgley was fond of this exhibition and would repeat it elsewhere, washing his hands thoroughly in the fluid and drying them on his handkerchief. “‘I’m not taking any chance whatever,’ he said. ‘Nor would I take any chance doing that every day.'” The New York World cited unbelievable dispatches from Detroit claiming that Midgley “frequently bathed” in TEL to prove its safety to skeptics within the industry.

The above information comes from Jamie Lincoln Kitman’s masterful Secret History of Lead in which he details the corrupt influence peddling of the TEL industry to influence scientists and government regulators. They deliberately covered up the dangers of lead to keep up their profits.  The results were deadly for the nation:

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… one can conservatively estimate that a total of about 68 million young children had toxic exposures to lead from gasoline from 1927 to 1987.

Although scientists were well aware of lead’s extreme toxicity, the TEL industry funded research claiming that a high level of environmental lead was the natural state of the world. The idea that lead is naturally everywhere in the atmosphere was unquestioned until Clair Patterson devoted his life to studying lead in the 1960s. He discovered that lead levels in American bodies was 100 to 1000 times higher than it had been in ancient times and that leaded gasoline had caused most of the problem.

His research was very expensive and ironically, it had been funded by oil companies. However when he published research showing that these oil companies were poisoning the world by pumping tons of lead into the air out of the tailpipes of engines and refinery smokestacks, they weren’t happy.

This illustration comes from a graphic novella about Patterson’s story by Kevin Cannon and Michele Regenold. Their story about Patterson ends optimistically:

Patterson bravely fought off well-funded interest groups who tried to discredit him and is one of the most beneficial scientists you have never heard of.  Thomas Midgely, was made wealthy by said interest groups and is the world’s most harmful scientists.  Both of his main inventions were environmental disasters.  He not only invented TEL, but also CFCs which nearly destroyed the ozone layer that protects life on earth.

Midgely’s TEL didn’t just make people sick and reduce IQ–the lead poisoning it produced also caused the crime wave of the 1970s-1990s which only ended after we ended leaded gasoline. 

Rick Nevin, Economist and housing consultant, and author of the book The Lucifer Curves: The Legacy of Lead Poisoning, found a relation between lead pollution and violent crime. According to Nevin, the delay between lead… poisoning, and violent crime increase is of around 20 years.

For the best written history of the science of how lead causes crime, see Kevin Drum’s 2013 essay and his brief 2018 update.  This documentary about the history of lead vividly shows the corruption.

Posted in Health, Public Finance

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