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Global Lead Network: Current Initiatives

Current Initiatives

TLPP: Who We Are and What We Do

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The Trust for Lead Poisoning Prevention promotes environmental health in the developing world through integrated approaches to prevention that highlight lead poisoning and toxics pollution as key case studies. The Trust’s overarching goal is to help catalyze and replicate internationalized solutions to sustainable development: solutions that engage all elements of the international system in reinforcing action – from the community to the international.

Making Rio+20 Work

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The Rio 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) to be held in Rio de Janeiro on June 20-22 is a major international gathering to assess progress since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.   As part of its participation in the preparatory process for Rio+20, the Alliance is disseminating the following position sheet:

Leaded Gasoline Phase-Out in Africa

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Africa is more severely affected by lead poisoning and pollution than any other region of the world. Virtually all countries on the continent still use leaded gasoline in opposition to global trends – and the lead content of that gasoline is the highest in the world. Distinct features of the African environment exacerbate the problem of lead poisoning and impart the unique pathological features of the disease in the African context. The pervasive dust formation characteristic of much of the African landscape facilitates the dispersion of ambient concentrations of lead and thereby increases the likelihood of exposure. These factors combine to make Africa a priority region for phase-out.

The Secret History of Lead: The Boss & Midge Sacked

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The Boss & Midge Sacked

Although it was not reported at the time and went unmentioned at the Surgeon General’s May 1925 hearing, both Kettering and Midgley had been relieved of their positions at Ethyl (president and vice president, respectively) the month before. Kettering remained an Ethyl director and Midgley merely a GM employee. Sloan later testified, “We felt that it was a great mistake to leave the management of the property in the hands of Midgley, who is entirely inexperienced in organization matters.”

J.L.K.

The Secret History of Lead: 'My Dear Boss'

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Sloan declined to let Kettering go. But America’s most famous automotive engineer after Henry Ford emerged with a renewed sensitivity to the profit-making needs of his corporation. In this regard, TEL held out an immediate lifeline. Writing Kettering from Florida in March 1923, Midgley related a mad brainstorm whose relevance had now become fully clear to Kettering. “My dear boss,” he began, “The way I feel about the Ethyl Gas situation is about as follows: It looks as though we could count on a minimum of 20 percent of the gas sold in the country if we advertise and go after the business — this at three cent gross to us from each gallon sold. I think we ought to go after it as soon as we can without being too hasty.”

The Secret History of Lead: The Hall of Fame

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Yandell Henderson. 1873-1944. Chairman, Medical Research Board, US Aviation Service WW1, consultant, Bureau of Mines. Supervised hundreds of poison-gas experiments, developed first Army gas mask, which he personally tested in a chamber filled with chlorine gas. Professor of applied physiology, Yale. Approached by Ethyl to study TEL, he insisted on research freedom; offer withdrawn. Most insightful critic of TEL after its introduction. Criticized industry funding of research. Identified nature of lead hazard sixty years before its ban and predicted that “conditions will grow worse so gradually and the development of lead poisoning will come on so insidiously (for this is the nature of the disease) that leaded gasoline will be in nearly universal use and large numbers of cars will have been sold that can run only on that fuel before the public and the Government awaken to the situation.” Refused to buy leaded gasoline and planned trips so as to be able to stop at Amoco stations, which carried unleaded gas.

The Secret History of Lead: But the Good News Is...

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The year 1923 did not begin well, then, for supporters of tetraethyl lead. In January, on account of lead poisoning, Thomas Midgley was forced to decline speaking engagements at three regional panels of the American Chemical Society, which had awarded him a medal for his discovery. “After about a year’s work in organic lead,” he wrote, “I find that my lungs have been affected and that it is necessary to drop all work and get a large supply of fresh air.” He repaired to Miami. Before leaving town, Midgley penned a reply to Cumming’s letter, which had been passed on to him by Pierre du Pont. Although the question “had been given very serious consideration,” he wrote, “...no actual experimental data has been taken.” Even so, Midgley assured the Surgeon General, GM and Du Pont believed that “the average street will probably be so free from lead that it will be impossible to detect it or its absorption.” In other words, TEL, the deadly chemical curiosity, was being brought to market without any thought or study as to its public health implications, but rather on the hopeful hunch of a clever mechanical engineer who had just been poisoned by lead.

The Secret History of Lead: The Rise of Tetraethyl Lead

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View Entire Document [PDF] (Please be advised that the timeline and press release are not accessible in this PDF file.)

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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The Secret History of Lead: And the Winner Is...

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The effect of this sudden time constraint was striking. As GM researcher and Kettering biographer T.A. Boyd noted in an unpublished history written in 1943, Midgley’s main research in 1919-20 had been to make alcohols out of olefins found in petroleum through reactions with sulfuric acid. (Farm alcohol was one thing, but a patentable process for production of petroleum-derived alcohol — a possible money-maker — was quite another, one of considerably greater interest to the corporation.) “But in view of the verdict setting a time limit on how much further the research for an antiknock compound might continue,” Boyd said, “work was resumed at once in making engine tests of whatever further compounds happened to be available on the shelf of the lab…or which could be gotten readily.”

The Secret History of Lead: Enter Du Pont

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View Entire Document [PDF] (Please be advised that the timeline and press release are not accessible in this PDF file.)

Enter Du Pont

In 1919 GM purchased Kettering’s Dayton research laboratory. The following year the company installed him as vice president of research of the renamed General Motors Research Corporation.

No longer the shambling, anarchic outfit it had been under the inveterate risk-taker W.C. Durant, GM was now to be run in the militarily precise mold of E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company of Wilmington, Delaware. Awash in a sea of gunpowder profits from World War I, the du Pont family had been increasing its stake in GM since 1914. By 1920 it controlled more than 35 percent of GM shares and moved to pack the board, installing professional management, with the du Pont faction taking control of the corporation’s all-powerful finance committee.

Caught short by a margin call in the recession of 1920, Durant, GM’s colorful founder, lost his stake and was forced by the du Pont family to walk the plank (he would spend his final days running a bowling alley). One of the clan’s craftiest patriarchs, Pierre du Pont, was coaxed from retirement and named GM’s interim president; Alfred Sloan, who had demonstrated the coldhearted allegiance to the bottom line the du Ponts revered, became executive vice president preparatory to assuming the top slot. The pressure on all concerned, including Kettering and his research division, was to make money and to make it fast.

Lest there be any misunderstanding, Sloan wrote to Kettering in September of 1920, alerting him to the du Ponts’ new math: “Although [the Research Corporation] is not a productive unit and a unit that is supposed to make a profit, nevertheless the more tangible result we get from it the stronger its position will be…. It may be inferred at some future time…that we are spending too much money down there [in Dayton] and being in a position to show what benefits had accrued to the corporation would strengthen our position materially.”

That time would come soon enough for Kettering to deliver. An air-cooled engine he’d championed—copper-cooled, he called it—would soon prove a costly disaster for GM. Fortunately for him, immediately after joining GM he had given his trusted assistant Midgley two weeks to find something to ignite the new management’s interest in funding continued fuel research. Though it would take somewhat longer than two weeks to fire their masters’ enthusiasm, “Midge” succeeded.

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