Previously Posted: The most dangerous single organism on Earth

For those new to CabbieBlog or readers who are slightly forgetful, on Saturdays I’m republishing posts, many going back over a decade. Some will still be very relevant while others have become dated over time. Just think of this post as your weekend paper supplement.

The most dangerous single organism on Earth (09.03.09)

Happy New Year to all readers of CabbieBlog. So by now, you’ve broken your New Year’s Resolution; have gone back to work to find another round of redundancies being announced; have overspent at Christmas, and are waiting for those credit card bills to drop on your doormat.

It could be worse, far, far worse. As a diversion from Cabbies’ Weekly Whinge, spare a moment to reflect on Thomas Midgley an American mechanical engineer turned chemist. While lauded at the time for his discoveries, today his legacy is seen as far more mixed considering the serious negative environmental impacts of his innovations. One historian remarked that Midgley “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth history”.

In December 1921 Midgley discovered that the addition of tetra-ethyl lead (“TEL”) to gasoline prevented internal combustion engines from “knocking”. The company dubbed the substance “Ethyl”, avoiding all mention of lead in reports and advertising. Oil companies and carmakers, especially General Motors which owned the patent strenuously promoted leaded fuel as an alternative to ethanol or ethanol-blended fuels, on which they could make very little profit.

The subsequent addition of lead to gasoline eventually resulted in the release of huge amounts of lead into the atmosphere, causing health problems around the world. Midgley himself had to take a prolonged vacation to cure him of lead poisoning. “After about a year’s work in organic lead,” he wrote in January 1923, “I find that my lungs have been affected and that it is necessary to drop all work and get a large supply of fresh air”.

In April 1923, General Motors created the General Motors Chemical Company to supervise the production of TEL by the DuPont Company and placed Midgley as vice president. However, after two deaths and several cases of lead poisoning at the TEL prototype plant in Dayton, Ohio, the staff at Dayton was said in 1924 to be “depressed to the point of considering giving up the whole tetraethyl lead program.” Over the course of the next year, eight more people would die at DuPont’s Deepwater, New Jersey plant.

Dissatisfied with the speed of DuPont’s production using their “bromide process”, General Motors and Standard Oil created the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation in 1924 and built a new TEL plant using a more dangerous high-temperature “ethyl chloride process” at the Bayway Refinery in New Jersey. Within the first two months of its operation, the Bayway plant was plagued by more cases of lead poisoning, hallucinations, insanity, and then five deaths in quick succession. On 30th October, Midgley participated in a press conference to demonstrate the “safety” of contact with the substance. In this demonstration, he poured tetra-ethyl lead over his hands, then placed a bottle of the chemical under his nose and breathed it in for sixty seconds, declaring that he could do this every day without succumbing to any problems whatsoever. However, the plant was decisively shut down by the State of New Jersey a few days later, and Standard was forbidden to manufacture TEL there again without state permission.

In 1930, General Motors charged Midgley with developing a non-toxic and safe refrigerant for household appliances. He (along with Charles Kettering) discovered dichlorodifluoromethane, a chlorinated fluorocarbon (“CFC”) which he dubbed Freon. CFCs were also used as propellants in aerosol spray cans, metered-dose inhalers (asthma inhalers), and more. In recent years CFCs have been attributed to causing severe damage to the Earth’s ozone layer.

In 1940, at the age of 51, Midgley contracted polio which left him severely disabled. This led him to devise an elaborate system of strings and pulleys to help others lift him from bed. This system was the eventual cause of his death when he was accidentally entangled in the ropes of this device and died of strangulation at the age of 55, and they say there is no justice in this world.

Such is life.

 

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