27 November 2022
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On the frosty morning of December 9, 1921, in Dayton, United States, researchers at a General Motors lab poured a new fuel blend into one of their test engines. Immediately, the engine began running more quietly and putting out more power.

The new fuel was tetraethyl lead. With vast profits in sight – and very few public health regulations at the time – General Motors Company rushed petrol diluted with tetraethyl lead to market despite the known health risks of lead. They named it “Ethyl” gas.

It has been 100 years since that pivotal day in the development of leaded petrol. As a historian of media and the environment, I see this anniversary as a time to reflect on the role of public health advocates and environmental journalists in preventing profit-driven tragedy.

By the early 1920s, the hazards of lead were well known – even Charles Dickens and Benjamin Franklin had written about the dangers of lead poisoning.

When General Motors began selling leaded petrol, public health experts questioned its decision. One called lead a serious menace to public health, and another called concentrated tetraethyl lead a “malicious and creeping” poison.

General Motors and Standard Oil waved the warnings aside until disaster struck in October 1924. Two dozen workers at a refinery in Bayway, New Jersey, came…

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Abdul Gh Lone

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