The Lead Conspiracy

How much money would you require to be paid to voluntarily put yourself through lead poisoning that makes you sick without killing you? Some people would do it for a few million dollars. This helps explain why people lie and cheat in order to poison the world including themselves. After all, if you could earn millions of dollars for getting mildly poisoned and had no regard for the effects on others, would you do it? You could then afford to retire early and buy a property somewhere in a healthier environment along with the best medical care money can buy.

For example, Thomas Midgley 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 equally well for most purposes, such as the simple, abundant, unpatentable ethyl alcohol.

In Midgely’s quest to promote TEL, he accidentally gave himself acute lead poisoning and had to convalesce for months in Florida. He gave himself lead poisoning in spite of the fact that he undoubtedly was well aware of the extreme toxcicity of TEL because it was common knowledge. In March 1922, Pierre du Pont, one of the heads of the Du Pont Corporation, wrote that TEL is “a colorless liquid of sweetish odor, very poisonous if absorbed through the skin, resulting in lead poisoning almost immediately.” That year, the US Surgeon General, H.S. Cumming, wrote 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.” That 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.

After the press learned about five deaths from lead poisoning at a TEL factory and symptoms of severe lead poisoning that afflicted over 80% of workers at the factory, Thomas Midgely, its inventor and a Vice President of the company, made a demonstration of rubbing it 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 masterful influence peddling of the TEL industry to cover up the dangers of lead and influence science and government regulators to keep up their profits. He writes that 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.

Lucas Reilly paints a vivid picture of what happened at Midgely’s factory that got the attention of the press and motivated him to put toxic TEL on his own hands (if it wasn’t just a sham act):

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.

Amazingly, the press never noticed the deaths and poisonings at the TEL plant in Dayton so that never came up as problematic for the industry. The companies who profited off of the patents and production of TEL gasoline included some of the largest in America: Standard Oil, General Motors, and DuPont. They funded research that gave the misleading impression that lead is environmentally benign. It was a masterful recovery from the PR disaster after word got out that they killed many of their own workers in Bayway, New Jersey.

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. That was unquestioned until Claire Patterson devoted his life to studying lead. He discovered that lead levels in American bodies was 100 to 1000 times higher than it had been in ancient times and that the leaded gasoline industry had produced most of the problem.

His research was very expensive and he had been funded by some of the wealthiest institutions in the world: 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:

Whereas Patterson is one of the most beneficial scientists you have never heard of, Thomas Midgely, has been called the world’s deadliest inventor that you have never heard of for inventing both TEL and CFCs which nearly destroyed the ozone layer which protects life on earth.

In addition to directly making people sick and reducing IQ, lead poisoning also caused the crime wave of the 1970s-1990s which 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.

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Posted in Health, Public Finance

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