21 April 2014
More About The Guy Who Almost Poisoned The Planet (As Seen on COSMOS Sunday Night)
Posted by Dan Satterfield
If you saw COSMOS Sunday night, (20 April) then you might be fascinated by the story of Thomas Midgley who invented lead additives for gasoline, and formed the Ethyl Corporation. Neil deGrasse Tyson used the entire episode to tell the story Clair Patterson who discovered the age of the Earth. In doing so, he also discovered that the lead additives in the gasoline were burning slowly poisoning all plant and animal life with lead.
This discovery did not go down well with Midgley, and he conspired to ruin Patterson’s career in any way possible. Below is the rest of the story (It’s a rewrite of a post in 2009).
Thomas Midgley RIP (If you can!)
You’ve probably never heard of Thomas Midgley, but believe me he has impacted your life.
He was a graduate of Cornell University, and worked as an industrial chemist for his entire career. His first big invention was to make an additive ( made of tetra-ethyl lead) for gasoline that almost completely eliminated knocking in automobile engines. The Ethyl corporation was formed to make millions of dollars off of this product, and they did for many years, until they ran into a small problem: LEAD is a dangerous neurotoxin. Ethy Corp. workers suffered all kinds of health effects, up to, and including death. If you’re my age, (or older) you can remember pulling into a service station, and being asked by the attendant “Do you want regular or ethyl?” You’ll see pumps marked ETHYL in many old movies as well, and now you know where that term comes from.
Bill Bryson, in his book “A Short History of Nearly Everything” has a fascinating chapter devoted to Midgley and the Ethyl Corporation. Perhaps most interesting is how they conspired, very successfully, to ruin the career of the scientist who figured out that lead produced by the Ethyl corporation was in everything by the 1950′s. It would not be banned in gasoline until the 1970′s! Supposedly the company denied that lead is dangerous to humans into the 1970′s. The hard fact remains that If you were born in the 1900′s, you have over 600 times the lead concentration in your body, than someone who died before World War One!
The Ethyl corporation still exists by the way, and they still make the product (The headquarters are in Richmond Va). They just sell it to other countries, and it’ s still put in some fuel used in the USA. I did a little research on Wikipedia, and found out that the company is now a subsidiary of New Market Corp. Eythyl Corp. itself still exists, and you can see their website here. Nothing on it about Thomas Midgley, or the banning of lead gasoline however.
Midgley and his story didn’t stop there, he next came up with a way to get rid of the dangerous chemicals used in early air conditioning systems. To do this, he invented a product called dichlorodifluoromethane. Yea, it’s hard to pronounce, so everyone just called it CFC. Yup, Midgley invented CFC’s! He had no idea of course that they would not only work well as a refrigerant, but were also incredibly effective at destroying Ozone.
Yes indeed, the ozone hole was caused by another of Thomas Midgley’s inventions, but fortunately the Montreal Protocol has now banned most CFC’s, and It should begin to close by 2050 (world-wide action on CFC’s is a great example of nations working together to save the environment). Things might have turned out far worse, however, because If Midgley had used Bromine instead of Chlorine, the resulting product would have destroyed the Ozone layer very rapidly; probably, so quickly that it would not likely have been discovered until it was too late to save it!
Midgley never believed (apparently) his products were unsafe, and he’s a classic example of the quote from the THE JUNGLE by Upton Sinclair that “It’s nearly impossible to convince a man of anything when his paycheck depends on it being otherwise”. There is a sad end to Midgley, and his story. He contracted Polio in later years, and designed a nifty contraption to get him in and out of bed, but It had the same hidden dangers of the rest of his inventions.
He got caught in it, and was found strangled.
Sources: A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING – Bill Bryson (Perhaps the best popular Science book ever written)
Doctor Karl- ABC Australia (Heard on BBC Radio 5 Live Thursday mornings)
Wikipedia (and I grabbed the Midgley pic from the Nerdy Science Blog-which has a great post about Midgley as well.)
Ozone hole pic from NASA and Ozone hole info from various Climate books I have. Email if your interested in these.
I first heard about Midgley in Bill Bryson’s book, and immediately wondered why I hadn’t heard about him before. Or Patterson. It seems to me the story of these two should be as interesting and as well known as some of the other famous science stories (Rutherford, Watson and Crick, Marsh and Cope, Lord Kelvin, etc etc etc).
Incidentally, Bryson’s retelling of that story was worth the price of the book itself. Simply fascinating. And now I have the urge to reread his book again….
My father-in-law worked for Ethyl Corp. in Baton Rouge as a Chemical Engineer for most of his career, retiring at age 55. Although he is relatively healthy at 89, he says a lot of his co-workers died of strange cancers (like brain cancer) and other unusual health problems. He almost died in the late 1950s when he tripped while walking on top of a tank full of chlorine and kicked the cap off, getting a lung-full of chlorine gas. He is now on oxygen 24/7 as a result.
As a seismologist, I don’t believe in much that is faith-based. However, I have optimistic hope for karma being a boomerang force in the universe. Most scientists say it doesn’t exist, but we should attempt to quantify it. Midgley earned “Exhibit A” in my database.
ROFL- LOVE IT!