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Leaded gasoline harmed millions and was invented in Dayton

In 1923 Ethyl Anti-Knock Gasoline went on sale in downtown Dayton at the Refiners Oil Company. Also for sale: Benzol Gasoline 23 cents a gallon and Aero Gasoline, 27 cents a gallon. Ethyl was a product of the General Motors Research Corporation which had sprung from Dayton’s Delco.
Engineers Club of Dayton Foundation
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In 1923 Ethyl Anti-Knock Gasoline went on sale in downtown Dayton at the Refiners Oil Company. Also for sale: Benzol Gasoline 23 cents a gallon and Aero Gasoline, 27 cents a gallon. Ethyl was a product of the General Motors Research Corporation which had sprung from Dayton’s Delco.

Last month was the 100 year anniversary of the invention of leaded gasoline, and it happened in Dayton. Bill Kovarik is a Media Historian and Professor of Communication at Radford University in Virginia. He has researched and written about the tragedy of leaded gasoline for years.

Transcript (edited lightly for length and clarity):

Bill: Leaded gasoline is gasoline that's been mixed with an additive called TetraEthyl lead. A century ago, Dayton was the beating heart of the second industrial revolution, and leaded gasoline was one of the panoply of inventions that came out of the city.

We were moving the country forward, going from coal and iron and steam to electric lights and internal combustion engines. But there were problems with internal combustion engines. When they went uphill, or you put a lot of load on the engine It would knock and shake and act like a stubborn mule. So scientists wanted to fix that.

Charles Kettering's Company Delco, or Dayton Electric Company, created automatic car starters so General Motors bought Delco and it became the center of the company's research division. Now, GM is working on a fuel problem.

Chris: What did they try to do to fix the problem?

Bill: They started putting a whole lot of stuff in gasoline down in the GM research center in Moraine, just trying everything. They put iodine in gasoline and it worked a little bit. They tried alcohol. It worked fine. They tried tellurium, which had a satanic garlic smell, and there were other things. There were problems with everything. Alcohol prohibition was underway at the time. So they came across TetraEthyl and it looked like a cheap way to boost octane.

Leaded gasoline had a lot of problems that they had to overcome too. Some of them were technical but there were a lot of warnings that it was very dangerous stuff, that it was a malicious and creeping poison, and they didn't really slow down development, even though some of the guys in the lab got very sick. At least two men died in Dayton in nineteen twenty two or twenty three, making concentrated tetraethyl.

Chris: But the problem with leaded gasoline went well beyond just affecting the people that manufactured it, correct?

Bill: Yes, once the leaded gasoline got into your fuel tank and was burned by an engine, you'd have three grams of lead per gallon of gasoline and of course, in those days, people would burn through a 20 gallon tank of gasoline pretty quickly because the fuel economy was pretty low. So every car would, perhaps over the course of a year, deposit many pounds of lead in a kind of a dry, dusty rain, as one public health advocate called it.

When we started doing serious public health studies in the 1970s and 80s, we found that there were developmental problems for children that you could map with great accuracy to the proximity to highways and other sources of lead.

Chris: So, Bill, what got you interested in this? Why did you want to write a 100 year retrospective?

Bill: Well, as a reporter, I covered energy and environmental issues in Washington D.C. in the 1970s and 80s. This was a time when leaded gasoline was being phased out, and it was very controversial and I wanted to know about it and everybody said, "Well, it just, you know, it's just been there forever in gasoline." So I started doing research. What I was finding was there was a thick blanket of public relations to make this look all terribly respectable. And in some ways, it wasn't.

It's really one of the first modern environmental controversies with all the modern elements. There is uncertainty about risk. There's lack of regulation, there's a wide impact on the population. You have public health advocates on one side fighting the industry on the other, the press in the middle with the government wondering what to do. So it's like. Does that sound familiar? It sounds a lot like modern day.

Chris: What is the lesson people should learn from this?

Bill: Lead was dangerous, and it was not the only answer, but it was profitable. They made a lot of money from it. This is part of the lesson: industry will sometimes lie to boost their profits. That's why we have regulation, and that's why we continue to need regulation, that's a lesson of history that we can take from that.

The other is that the industry, when they got any kind of coverage at all, they always said it was wrong. They always said the media was wrong and actually the media did a fair job. They got manipulated. They made some mistakes, but they did try to understand and help the public understand the risks.

Chris Welter is a reporter and corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.