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Global Lead Network: The Secret History of Lead: Hall of Shame

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

The Hall of Shame

The Engineer

Charles “Boss” Kettering. 1876-1958. Inventor of electric self-starter, later head of General Motors’ research division; major GM shareholder. Popular public speaker (“The greatest salesman of science this country has ever known”-Time), with more than 2,000 speeches and numerous articles to his name. Championed leaded gas before public and complaisant government, abandoning superior but less profitable additiveethanol-he had earlier praised.

His Trusted Aid

Thomas Midgley Jr. 1889-1944. Mechanical engineer, self-taught chemist, longtime Kettering “go to” man, “the father of Ethyl gas.” Stumbled on tetraethyl lead (TEL) additive in 1921, defended its safety to government. Alerted Kettering to immense profits to be made in leaded gasoline. Other contributions to better living through chemistry: Invented Freon and related family of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) used in pesticides, plastics and propellants; later banned by EPA.

The Industrialists

Pierre (1870-1954) and Irénée (1877-1963) du Pont. Scions of 200-year-old family-explosives business; used windfall profits made selling gunpowder during World War I to purchase a controlling interest in General Motors. Pierre installed as GM president; Irénée as head of Du Pont. Their firms productionized TEL and, separately and together with Standard Oil of New Jersey, earned royalties on gasoline sold around the world between 1924 and 1992. Ignored the dangers of TEL production while hundreds died or suffered poisoning at their factories; misled press and public as to nature of hazard posed by lead gasoline. Aided Nazi war effort in pacts with German chemical giant I.G. Farben.

The Man of Science

Dr. Robert Kehoe. 1893-1992. Toxicologist, chief medical consultant to Ethyl Gasoline Corporation; leading apologist for its leaded gasoline additive. Director, Kettering Laboratory, University of Cincinnati, founded with gift from GM, Du Pont and Ethyl. Came to prominence at 1925 Surgeon General’s hearing on tetraethyl lead, claiming unique expertise; for next forty years point man of GM/Standard Oil/Du Pont monopoly on lead research. Central belief, later debunked: All planetary life forms carry heavy natural lead burden. Proponent of practice of perpetually obfuscating scientific data that question safety of lead, setting pattern for other polluting industries and makers of hazardous products opposed to regulation. In 1966 tells Muskie Clean Air subcommittee: “I would simply say that in developing information on this subject [leaded gasoline], I have had a greater responsibility than any other persons in this country.”

J.L.K.