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Global Lead Network: The Secret History of Lead: Octel

The Secret History of Lead: A Special Report from The Nation

We Visit Octel

“Do you see that village over there?” Bob Larbey asked, pointing out the minicab window. “That’s where Louise Woodward grew up. That’s where she lives.” It was quite an admission.

You see, Larbey was the soon-to-retire manager of external affairs for the Associated Octel Company, the world’s largest makers of tetraethyl lead (TEL), the gasoline antiknock additive outlawed in the West but still sold in the Third World. His company’s last remaining lead factory and Shell Oil’s closely adjacent Stanlow Refinery, located in Ellesemere Port alongside the Manchester Ship Canal, outside Liverpool, are, for better or worse, Louise Woodward’s next-door neighbors.

Putting aside one’s free-floating interest in the lives of the rich and famous (Woodward attained notoriety, you will recall, when she was charged in 1997 with murdering a Massachusetts infant in her care), Larbey’s revelation interested me for another reason. In the preceding months, I had been reading up on lead and had learned that a vein of scientific research five miles wide and fifty-six years old had linked childhood lead exposure to a variety of learning difficulties and personality disorders, among them violent, irrational and aggressive behavior.

“Wow,” I said to Larbey and Richard Bremner, a correspondent for England’s Car magazine. Like me, Bremner is a starry-eyed old-car buff. We’re all for safety and low emissions, but we love cars, especially older ones. Following industry pronouncements and reading car magazines religiously, we’d been led to believe—I in America in the eighties, when lead was removed from gasoline, and he only recently, as Britain contemplated its phaseout—that the removal of lead from fuel would damage the engines of our old cars. Frankly, I’d begun wondering about the honesty of the additive makers and the oil industry. Having run more than my fair share of venerable machinery in the fourteen-year period since the US ban went into effect, I hadn’t had a single recessed valve seat—what I’d been led to fear—or any other engine problem to report.

One is tempted to describe the Octel plant, which rends the gray and rainy Mersey sky in a most unharmonious fashion, as Victorian, except that it was built in 1948. After installing ourselves in jumpsuits and rubber boots, which lent special moment to the occasion, we were given two sets of gloves, two pairs of goggles and brand-new gas masks, which lent an air of terror. I couldn’t help recalling the sickening deaths and illnesses of hundreds of TEL workers in the twenties in New Jersey, in plants run by Standard Oil and Du Pont. This was bad stuff. Gripped by violent bursts of insanity, the afflicted would imagine they were being persecuted by butterflies and other winged insects before expiring, their bodies having turned black and blue.

As we toured the plant with Larbey and an Octel worker, Bob Pedley, my thoughts were instantly fogged by the significance of this place, the largest lead additive factory in the world and the last in the West. Octel continues to supply TEL to large parts of the Third World from this site, by tanker and seaborne container, as if the world medical establishment, the UN, the EU, the EPA and the World Bank (I could go on) hadn’t come out strongly against the stuff. So TEL manufacturing experts will forgive me now if I can no longer remember the exact sequence of what we saw, or even what we were seeing. But I will never forget our first sight of huge caldrons of sodium being electrically heated to 600 degrees Fahrenheit, to remove chlorine. (“If the chlorine escapes, put your gas mask on and start running,” someone had told me. Or had it simply been “start running”? I hoped not to find out.) The sodium was then blended, I think, with molten lead made from huge ingots, and this sodium/lead mixture was mixed with ethyl chloride to make TEL. Added at this point would be the ethylene dibromide (EDB), the “scavenger” material that causes the lead to exit the car’s exhaust. EDB, I’d learned earlier, is another well-documented carcinogen. High up one of the exterior walls of the tower where the sodium/lead mixture is mixed with ethyl chloride were enormous tanks. In the event of a chemical overreaction—”It gets away from us sometimes,” Larbey said with a chuckle—so-called burst disks rupture, allowing the empty tanks to fill with the toxic overbrew.

We were about to enter the building when a guard asked Larbey who we were. He told him and the guard advised that the burst disks had just ruptured. Perhaps we wouldn’t be going in, after all. “Hey, Richard,” I said to my friend. “Would you stop turning into a butterfly?” On our way out of the factory offices on this gray, rainy day, I noticed a sign listing “incidents” for the year: 486. No fatalities.

On the Virgin train back to London, Bremner and I spoke with Megan Harding, a New Zealander in Britain who represented APS Chemicals in a tentative joint venture with Octel to market Valvemaster, a phosphorus-based additive said to prevent the dreaded valve-seat recession. Harding explained that DMA-4, as Valvemaster was formerly known, was originally discovered as a detergent additive by Du Pont in the sixties and was apparently once the world’s leading gasoline additive. The unexpected protection it offered against valve-seat recession was discovered in the seventies, with more than a billion gallons of fuel bulk-treated since the advent of unleaded gas. (Valvemaster faces a sales ceiling, however, for, like lead, phosphorus fouls catalytic converters.) In one of the press handouts Harding gave us, Octel CEO Dennis Kerrison claims that Valvemaster is “proven, reliable, cost-effective.” The next time I find myself in Ellesmere Port I plan to ask the man, If all that’s true, why then haven’t you stopped selling lead? The world—and Louise Woodward—have a right to know.

J.L.K.