Global Lead Network: The Secret History of Lead: The Rise of Tetraethyl Lead

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

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The Rise of Tetraethyl Lead

With the application filed, the groundwork was laid for manufacture of TEL. An October 1922 agreement contracted Du Pont to supply GM. Signing for GM was Pierre du Pont; signing for Du Pont: his brother Irénée. Manufacturing began in 1923 with a small operation in Dayton, Ohio, that made 160 gallons of tetraethyl lead a day and shipped it out in one-liter bottles, each of which would treat 300 gallons of gasoline. In February 1923 the world’s first tankful of leaded gasoline was pumped at Refiners Oil Company, at the corner of Sixth and Main streets, in Dayton, Ohio, from a station owned by Kettering’s friend Willard Talbott. But four months earlier, an agitated William Mansfield Clark, a lab director in the US Public Health Service, had written A.M. Stimson, assistant Surgeon General at the PHS, warning that Du Pont was preparing to manufacture TEL at its plant in Deepwater, New Jersey. It constituted a “serious menace to public health” he stated, with reports already emerging from the plant that “several very serious cases of lead poisoning have resulted” in pilot production.

Clark additionally speculated that widespread use of TEL would mean “on busy thoroughfares it is highly probable that the lead oxide dust will remain in the lower stratum.” Estimating that each gallon of gasoline burned would emit four grams of lead oxide, he worried that this would build up to dangerous levels along heavily traveled roads and in tunnels.

Stimson was troubled enough by Clark’s letter to request that the PHS’s Division of Pharmacology conduct investigations; unfortunately, the division’s director responded, such trials would be too time-consuming. He suggested that the PHS rely upon industry to supply the relevant data, a spectacularly poor plan that would amount to government policy for the next forty years.

Perhaps spurred by Clark’s missive and Stimson’s concern, in December 1922 the US Surgeon General, H.S. Cumming, wrote Pierre du Pont: “Inasmuch as it is understood that when employed in gasoline engines, this substance will add a finely divided and nondiffusible form of lead to exhaust gases, and furthermore, 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.”

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