Sunday, June 09, 2013

The Story of Tetraethyl Lead and CFC's

How much before it is really too much? This is the question that plagues my mind, when I come across instances of health and environment coming in loggerhead with economics. Not many will have heard of an inventor by the name of Thomas Midgley Jr. Midgley, an engineer by training, developed an interest in industrial chemistry. This interest would prove too costly for all of us and you will soon see why. Midgley got a job in General motors research and while investigating a compound called tetraethyl lead (TEL) discovered that it significantly reduced engine knocking in automobiles. Lead is a neurotoxin. It can permanently damage the brain and the nervous system. Lead also leads to kidney failure, blindness, hearing loss, cancer and produces terrifying hallucinations. In simple terms, you don't want lead in your system. Since TEL stopped engines from knocking, 2 years after it's discovery in 1921, three of America's largest corporations GM, Du Pont, and Standard oil formed a joint enterprise called the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation (later renamed Ethyl Corporation) with a view of profiting from TEL. The additive was called ethyl, because it sounded less toxic than "lead." In the production facility of Ethyl Corporation, the workers exhibited symptoms of lead poisoning (described above). For decades, Ethyl continued denying any problems with TEL, even though fifteen workers had died in early days of leaded gasoline production and untold numbers became ill. To allay the concerns of the public, over the new product, Midgley even held a beaker of TEL close to his nose for 60 seconds, at a press conference, claiming he could repeat the procedure everyday without harm. Midgley, knew the dangers of lead very well and rarely even went near TEL.
After the success of leaded gasoline, Midgley turned his attention to another problem. Refrigerators in 1920's were dangerous, because its dangerous cooling gas used to leak. One leak from a refrigerator in 1929 killed more than a 100 people in the US state of Ohio. Midgley began working on a safer alternative and invented chlorofluorocarbons or CFC's.
CFC were swiftly embraced by the industry and were used everywhere from car AC's to perfumes. As you are aware by now, CFC is not a good thing. One kilo of CFC can destroy seventy thousand kilos of Ozone in the atmosphere and can stay there for centuries, wrecking havoc. Ozone protects us from sun's harmful UV rays. Midgley never knew this because he died before the harmful effect of CFC's were realised by anyone. Midgley, later became crippled with polio, and to ease his life, he invented a series of motorized pulleys that automatically turned him in bed. In 1944 he became entangled in the chords of this machine and was strangled. Midgley was a man of science, but the manner in which science was exploited by the big companies- despite being aware of the dangers is a story that follows. (To be continued in the next post...)

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