Leaded gasoline

From SourceWatch
Jump to: navigation, search
This article is a stub. You can help by expanding it.

Learn more from the Center for Media and Democracy's research on climate change.

This article is part of the Coal Issues portal on SourceWatch, a project of CoalSwarm and the Center for Media and Democracy. See here for help on adding material to CoalSwarm.

Leaded gasoline is the fuel that is created when tetraethyl lead is added to gasoline. Because lead has serious impacts on public health, leaded gasoline was permanently banned in the US in 1996, in the European Community since 2000, and in most of the developing world in subsequent years. Today it is used in only six of the world's most backwards countries.

History of leaded gasoline

Leaded gasoline was invented on Dec. 9, 1921 at the General Motors research laboratory in Dayton, Ohio. Despite 40 illnesses and two deaths on the production line, leaded gasoline was marketed starting Feb. 1, 1923. The effect was to improve engine performance by boosting the "octane" rating of gasoline.

Although other additives could also boost octane, leaded gasoline was cheap to make and very profitable to sell. General Motors created a partnership with Standard Oil Co. of NJ (now Exxon) to produce and market the new fuel additive in 1924. General Motors also relied on an existing partner, the Du Pont Corp., to produce the additive.

Leaded gasoline first became controversial following the October, 1924 deaths of six refinery workers at the Standard Oil Co. plant in Bayway, NJ. Public health leaders at the time spoke out about the serious safety issues presented by the new additive, noting that it was not only a hazard for thousands of refinery workers, but also millions of motorists. The product was taken off the market for a year, although GM and Standard dismissed the critics and claimed that no substitutes existed.

A Public Health Service commission performed a quick study and found "no good reason" to prohibit sales of leaded gasoline to the public in 1926. Following the study, leaded gasoline returned to the market and, by the 1960s, the fuel market was dominated by leaded "regular" gasoline.

In the 1970s, the US EPA mandated catalytic converters on all US cars to reduce emissions of carbon monoxide and other "criteria" pollutants. Since lead fouled the converters, unleaded gasoline was needed. Public health was also a major concern at the time, following studies by Herbert Needleman and others.

By the 1990s, organizations like the World Health Organization and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development became concerned about the public health impacts of leaded gasoline. It was banned in Europe in 2000 and a global phaseout for developing nations was started in 2001. By 2011, most nations had switched to unleaded gasoline, according to the U.N. [1]

Timeline of leaded gasoline

1916 -- Dayton Electric Light Co. (DELCO) president Charles F. Kettering asks researcher Thomas A. Midgley to begin working on problem of engine knock in DELCO electric generators used in rural areas for electric lighting. Midgley discovers iodine as anti-knock but it's too expensive. Delco sold; Kettering starts Dayton Metal Products Co. (DMPC).

1917 -- Kettering and Midgley test fuels for Army Air Corps at Wright airfield. Alcohols and benzenes are listed as best anti-knock substances available but unsuitable to aircraft engines except in blends with gasoline.

1919 -- General Motors buys DMPC and makes Kettering research vice president .

-- Midgley discovers analine anti-knock additive after being given two weeks to find something to make Detroit GM headquarters happy. But analine is expensive, dangerous and foul-smelling.

-- Mounting concern about long term petroleum supplies and declining quality of gasoline. Some automotive engineers advocate lowering compression ratio to enable use of low-quality fuels. In a speech to the Society of Automotive Engineers, Kettering says that would be wasteful and advocated high compression engines and improving the quality of gasoline with additives.

1920 -- Anti-knock research proceeds but frustration sets in. Du Pont disagrees with idea of analine injectors.

-- Midgley patents analine injectors; also patents anti-knock blend of ethyl alcohol and cracked (olefin) gasolines.

-- Scientific American says that because of its antiknock effect in blends with gasoline, there is a "universal assumption that [ethyl] alcohol in some form will be a constituent of the motor fuel of the future.” [2]

1921 -- Anti-knock research almost abandoned; Midgley discovers potential of selenium and tellurium by accident.

-- July -- Boyd explores ethyl alcohol production from cellulose at Yale.

-- August -- December -- Systematic tests of metallic elements for antiknock. -- October -- Midgley demonstrates 30 percent ethyl alcohol blend in gasoline as anti-knock to Indiana Society of Automotive Engineers meeting. According to unpublished notes from the meeting now among documents at Flint University archives, Midgley said:

“Alcohol (ethanol) has tremendous advantages and minor disadvantages... (such as) clean burning and freedom from any carbon deposit... [and] tremendously high compression under which alcohol will operate without knocking... Because of the possible high compression, the available horsepower is much greater with alcohol than with gasoline...”

-- December 9 -- First tests of tetraethyl lead in GM labs by Thomas Midgley. Substantial decrease in engine knock.

-- December -- Kettering proposes product name "Ethyl" because solvent (ethyl alcohol) used to suspend lead in fuel, but the choice confuses (perhaps deliberately) the "high percentage" route to anti-knock additives with the "low percentage" route.

1922 -- Continued tests of tetraethyl lead. Valve, spark and exhaust failures are problems. Scavenger such as ethylene di-bromide (EDB) needed.

-- Strong letters of concern about safety of tetraethyl lead by fellow scientists and Public Health Service to General Motors.

-- September -- First demonstrations of effect of tetraethyl lead on engine knock at American Chemical Society (ACS) convention.

1923 -- February 1 -- First commercial sale of Ethyl Gasoline in Dayton, Ohio. GM production line goes into full operation.

-- Two dead, 40 "under observation" from lead poisoning at GM pilot scale lead production plant in Dayton Ohio. Dates unknown.

-- September -- Du Pont begins production at Deepwater, N.J. (across bay from Wilmington, Del.) Frank W. Durr, 37, first worker known to die of lead poisoning Sept. 21 from TEL process. Seven more will die in Deepwater by 1925.

-- September -- First safety tests begin at Bureau of Mines, Pittsburgh, Pa.

1924 -- September 26 - October 30 -- Six Standard Oil refinery workers die violently insane following daily exposure to tetraethyl lead fumes at Bayway Ethyl plant.

-- October 27 -- First headlines in New York city newspapers about leaded gasoline deaths at Bayway.

1925 -- May 20 -- US Public Health Service holds conference to discuss viewpoints on Ethyl controversy and appoints blue-ribbon committee to conduct independent inquiry.

1926 -- January 26 -- PHS committee releases a report that finds "no good grounds" for prohibiting Ethyl gasoline but insists on continued tests

1935 -- Ethyl and Standard agree to provide I.G. Farben technology and know-how to manufacture tetraethyl lead in Germany.

1937 -- Ethyl Gasoline Corp. indicted for violations of Sherman Anti-Trust Act

1942 -- Sen. Harry S. Truman's war investigating committee exposes a treasonous pre-war relationship between American companies Ethyl, Standard Oil (Exxon), General Motors and DuPont on the one hand and the German chemical company I.G. Farben on the other.

1950 -- Dr. Arie Haagen-Smit identifies causes of smog in LA as interaction of hydrocarbons (cars largest source) and oxides of nitrogen. Additional concerns about leaded gasoline begin emerging.

-- Eugene Houdry, a petroleum engineer, announces development of a catalytic converter for auto exhaust to cut down carbon monoxide. (WSJ, Dec. 4, 1950) The combination of the catalytic converter and unleaded fuel would not be implemented for another 30 years.

1965 -- Clair Patterson publishes "Contaminated and Natural Lead Environments of Man," the first to show that high lead levels in industrial nations are man-made and endemic. (Arch Environ Health. 1965 Sep;11:344-60.)

1966 -- June 8 -- Hearings on leaded gasoline begin in U.S. Senate and include testimony from Robert Kehoe, a scientist working for industry, and Clair Patterson

1972 -- Feb 22 -- EPA announces that all gasoline stations will be required to carry "nonleaded" gasoline in the future to protect catalytic converters.

1979 -- Herbert Needleman begins first large study of behavior and intelligence as influenced by lead exposure.

1980 -- June 27 -- Final decision in Lead Industries Association v. EPA, affirms EPA regulations for leaded gasoline, allowing the phase-out to go forward.

1983 -- Howard Mielke first reports that leaded gasoline in city soils are a factor in childhood lead poisoning, beginning a long record of research on the topic.

1986 -- Citing conclusive evidence of brain damage from leaded gasoline, phase-out of 92 percent of all lead in gasoline ordered by EPA. Practical effect is banning of tetraethyl lead from U.S. market.

1990 - Leaded gasoline is “The Mistake of the 20th Century” according to C.M. Shy of the UNC School of Public Health in a paper published by the World Health Statistics Quarterly.

1994 -- United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development called on all governments to eliminate lead from gasoline. Meanwhile in the US, the level of lead in the average person's blood declines by 78 % between 1978 to 1991 during leaded gasoline phase-out.

1995 -- April 14 -- Ethyl v. EPA -- According to a federal judge, the only reason to ban a gasoline additive is to prevent the failure of emissions control systems, the US Court of Apeals for the District of Columbia says. Public health concerns were not a sufficient reason for the denial of Ethyl's application to sell MMT (methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl) as a gasoline additive.

1996 -- Feb 20 - OECD member nations, World Bank, signed a Lead Declaration placing lead petrol phase-out as the number one action for each OECD country. The report links public health with economics and notes that the health costs of leaded gasoline are far higher than the benefits to a few refiners and gasoline distributors.

-- Lead poisoning is linked to anti-social behavior in a study by Dr. Herbert Needleman. (Jane Brody, "Aggressiveness and Delinquency In Boys Is Linked to Lead in Bones, New York Times, Feb. 7, 1996.)

2000 -- Jan 1 -- European Union bans leaded gasoline as a public health hazard.

2001 -- June -- Declaration of Dakar sets timetable for removal of leaded gasoline from Sub-Saharan Africa through United Nations Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles.

2004 -- Ethyl Corp. changes its name to New Market.

2011 -- Oct. 26 United Nations Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles reports that leaded gasoline use is almost phased out worldwide.


  1. Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles United Nations, accessed Nov. 2011.
  2. Bill Kovarik, "Henry Ford, Charles Kettering and the Fuel of the Future," Society of Automotive Historians, 1998.


  • Joseph Borkin, The Crime and Punishment of I.G. Farben (Free Press, 1978).
  • Herbert Needleman, History of lead poisoning in the world, c. 1998.
  • Marjorie Smith, “Lead in History,” eds. Richard Lansdown and William Yule, Lead Toxicity: History and Environmental Impact, (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
  • Robert A. Solo, "The Saga of Synthetic Rubber," Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, April 1980, p. 31.
  • William Stephenson, A Man Called Intrepid. Ballentine, 1976.
  • U.S. Senate, Automotive lead emissions : Hearings before the Panel on Environmental Science and Technology of the Subcommittee on Environmental Pollution of the Committee on Public Works, United States Senate, Ninety-third Congress, second session, May 7 and 8, 1974.