One-Man Environmental Disaster

As a company that strives for environmental excellence, I thought we’d take some time this month to consider our antithesis, a man specializing in environmental catastrophe: Thomas Midgley Jr. Once hailed by New Scientist magazine as a “one-man environmental disaster,” Midgley was a chemical engineer largely responsible for the invention of not one, but two globally devastating creations.

The first of these creations was tetraethyl lead (abbreviated TEL), a fuel additive containing lead designed to help reduce engine knock, which resulted in just a monumental amount of human suffering which I’ll get into shortly.

For those out of the know, lead is a neurotoxin that mimics calcium in the human body, which means it gets stored long term in our bones, and there’s no great way to get it out. Lead causes damage to both our nervous and cardiovascular systems, as well as neurological disorders, headaches, memory loss, antisocial or violent behavior, and brain damage.

In fairness to Midgley, lead also apparently makes engines a little quieter. So with that in mind, and against the advice of naysaying doctors and public health officials from MIT, Harvard, Yale, and the US Health Services, Midgley pressed on with his creation and sale of TEL.

Things were off to a rocky start, however. In 1924, dozens of workers at a New Jersey plant tasked with the creation of the chemical developed lead poisoning, five of whom died. Midgley seemingly considered those to be necessary casualties in his war against engine knock, so he soldiered on, calling a press conference to address the public outcry. During said press conference he rubbed TEL on his hands and breathed it in for nearly a minute, claiming he could do this safely every day with no adverse effects. Interestingly enough Midgley had spent the previous year hiding away from the public eye in Florida recovering from a fairly serious case of lead poisoning himself, which one might assume he’d picked up by being in close contact with his lead-based fuel additive.

Nevertheless, Midgley survived this witch-hunt with the help of likeminded scientists (who happened to be funded by Midgely’s company) that agreed with Midgley’s assertion that lead was a naturally occurring part of the environment and therefore mostly non harmful to humans and everybody should just go home and quit talking about it already. And he might have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for the meddling hero of our story Clair Cameron Patterson.

Patterson was a geochemist working on determining the age of the earth. Patterson sought to accomplish this goal by measuring the ratio of uranium to lead in primordial rocks, but all Midgley’s lead in the air kept screwing up the readings, so Patterson decided to investigate the extent of environmental lead pollution.

Patterson began by collecting water samples in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans and found lead concentrations near the oceans’ surface were nearly ten times higher than samples collected 5km down, disproving Midgley’s claim that environmental lead levels were constant and naturally prominent in the environment.

Patterson then traveled to Greenland and Antarctica to collect ice cores to establish a timeline of lead pollution. Lo and behold Patterson’s timeline indicated a significant increase in the prevalence of lead starting around the time of the mass distribution of Midgley’s TEL fuel additive.

Patterson continued on to compare lead stored in the bones of ancient Peruvian and Egyptian mummies against recently deceased Americans and found the presence of lead in Americans was 1000 times greater. “So what?” you say to yourself. “Americans got more lead than some mummies, who cares? What’s the problem?” So let’s mosey on over to the consequences section and have a looksee.

Globally, lead is believed to be responsible for around 66% of all unexplained intellectual disabilities. In a 2022 study, researchers from Duke University estimated that lead is responsible for the loss of 824 million IQ points globally. That same study estimates that over half of the US population (170 million people) was exposed to high levels of lead in early childhood.

Interestingly, graphs charting rise in violent crimes in the US compared to charts plotting the average Blood Lead levels in preschoolers, when offset by about 20 years (enough time to allow those preschoolers to grow to a crime committing age), eerily match up fairly well. Similar patterns were recognized in Great Britain, Canada, and Australia, and lead some to theorize that lead pollution may be partially responsible for a rise in violence.

Additionally, a 2018 study suggests that the hardening of arteries caused by lead is likely responsible for around 256,000 deaths in the US per year. Extrapolated out assuming a constant rate over the past century would mean lead may be responsible for around 25 million deaths in the US alone.

So, to surmise, thanks to Midgley lead is everywhere and everybody is dumb, violent, and sick. Time to call it a day, right? Keen eyed readers will recall at the start of this article I claimed Midgley is responsible for not one, but TWO environmental catastrophes.

In 1928 Midgley invented Dichlorodifluoromethane aka Freon-12, which ultimately resulted in a hole in earth’s ozone layer. Less ozone resulted in more UV light penetrating earth’s atmosphere which in turn led to an increase in skin cancer and cataracts. Freon-12 is also a potent greenhouse gas, causing significantly more warming than CO2. It wouldn’t be until 1985 that three scientists from the British Antarctic Survey observed the deterioration of the Earth’s atmosphere over antarctica.

In 1987 an agreement to phase out Chlorofluorocarbons called the Montreal Protocol was enacted, and in 2014 NASA announced for the first time in 35 years, atmospheric ozone had actually increased.

Though national bans on fuel containing lead began in 1986 with Japan, it wouldn’t be until 1996 that the US banned its use (excepting use in single prop airplanes), and it still wouldn’t be until 2020 that fuel containing lead was banned globally when the last holdout Algeria officially ended its sale. In 2021, the UN predicted that the official end of the use of leaded gasoline would prevent more than 1.2 million premature deaths and save USD 2.45 trillion a year.

Midgley ultimately wouldn’t live long enough to see the long-term results of either of his inventions. In 1940 Midgley contracted polio leaving him partially handicapped. He designed a series of pulley contraptions to get in and out of bed, and in 1944 he got tangled up in his creation and passed away.

Midgley certainly isn’t the first or only inventor whose creations have wreaked unintended havoc on the environment (though you have to admit that it’s wild that it happened twice), and Midgley’s passing in 1944 ensured he’d never see the legacy he left the world. So, as we strive forward in our goal for environmental excellence, we’ll continue to help clean up the unintended consequences of men such as Midgley, and we’ll make our legacy the undoing of theirs.

Chris Cooper
Field Supervisor
Oklahoma Environmental Services​​​