GM and Standard Oil had a really great tactic: if they didn't officially investigate their new gasoline additive (lead), then they wouldn't have to tell people how crazy dangerous it was. Genius! Evil! Evil genius!
States realized the danger and moved to ban lead additives to gasoline, but the corporations petitioned the Federal government to get involved and helped them stock panels with industry-friendly scientists who declared that lead was perfectly okay, despite being a potent neurotoxin.
We knew, thanks to this New York forensic scientist, in 1924 that leaded gasoline was a terrible poison, but due to corporate bribery it was not banned until 1986. How many people suffered in those 62 years just so GM and Standard Oil could make a few more bucks?
Of Dead Bodies and Dirty Streets | Speakeasy Science
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The five men worked at the Standard Oil Refinery in Bayway, New Jersey. All of them spent their days in what plant employees nicknamed “the loony gas building”, a tidy brick structure where workers seemed to sicken as they handled a new gasoline additive. The additive’s technical name was tetraethyl lead or, in industrial shorthand, TEL. It was developed by researchers at General Motors as an anti-knock formula.
But, as I wrote in a previous post, men working at the plant quickly gave it the “loony gas” tag because anyone who spent much time inside showed signs of mental deterioration, from stumbling memory loss to sudden twitchy bursts of rage. In October of 1924, workers in the TEL building began collapsing, going into convulsions, babbling deliriously. By the end of September, 32 of the 49 TEL workers were in the hospital; five of them died.
The problem, at that point, was that no one knew exactly why. Oh, they knew – or should have known – that tetraethyl lead was dangerous. As Charles Norris, chief medical examiner for New York City pointed out, the compound had been banned in Europe for years due to its toxic nature. But while U.S. corporations hurried TEL into production in the 1920s, they did not hurry to understand its medical or environmental effects.
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In 1924, New York had the best forensic toxicology department in the country; in fact, it had one of the few such programs period. The chief chemist was a dark, cigar-smoking, perfectionist named Alexander Gettler, a famously dogged researcher who would sit up late at night designing both experiments and apparatus as needed.
It took Gettler three obsessively focused weeks to figure out how much tetraethyl lead the Standard Oil workers had absorbed before they became ill, or crazy, or dead. “This is one of the most difficult of many difficult investigations of the kind which have been carried on at this laboratory,” Norris said, when releasing the results. “This was the first work of its kind, as far as I know. Dr. Gettler had not only to do the work but to invent a considerable part of the method of doing it.”
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