How A Scientist Took On The Company That Poisoned The World
A chemical has been released into the atmosphere that messes with the human brain, ruining impulse control and even turning people murderously violent. A scientist realizes what's going on and tries to stop it ... only to run smack into the corporation making millions off said chemical. That corporation has hired its own experts, who insist that everything is fine despite horrific evidence to the contrary. It sounds like the plot of a sci-fi horror movie, one in which the scientist is played by some implausibly ripped actor like Mark Wahlberg. But all of it actually happened. The scientist was Clair Cameron Patterson, and the chemical was lead.
Patterson's public war on lead -- specifically, leaded gasoline -- put him at odds with a fuel conglomerate formed by General Motors, Standard Oil, and Du Pont called Ethyl. They and their front man, Dr. Robert Kehoe, would work to destroy Patterson's career. In the end, Patterson won. Mostly.
A Stupid Disaster Decades In The Making
Patterson was a former member of the Manhattan Project who was most famous for figuring out the age of the Earth to the greatest degree of accuracy. Which wasn't easy, because it's not like you can drag out an extra-large saw and count the rings. He's also the reason that when you go get gas today, it makes sure to tell you that what you're pumping is "unleaded."
That's because gasoline once contained lead as an additive. It was known to be poisonous when it was first introduced a century ago to make engines knock less. But really, what was the worst that could happen? The amount of toxic lead expelled by each car was so tiny that you'd probably hardly even notice! Unless there were, like, a bunch of cars all doing it at once ...
This can all be traced back to GM employee Thomas Midgley Jr., who had tried solving the problem of that pesky engine noise for years. He found that adding lead (specifically tetraethyl lead, or TEL) increased fuel's combustibility, which meant an engine wouldn't make a knocking sound. And thus began the largest mass poisoning in the history of the world.
Fun fact: Ethanol, aka grain alcohol, actually worked better for this, but GM worried that they couldn't patent it, and that their friends in the oil industry saw it as a threat to their profits. Another fun fact: When leaded gas hit the market in 1923, Midgley was home sick, recovering from, you guessed it, lead poisoning. Alright, these facts actually aren't fun at all.
Even less fun: Refinery workers immediately started dying from lead exposure. The lucky ones merely got palsy, hallucinations, and other severe neurological disorders. Meanwhile, all of the millions of cars belching the stuff into the air meant the people breathing the fumes would suffer from more subtle and insidious symptoms -- hyperactivity, lowered IQ, learning disabilities, and behavioral problems up to and including brutal violence. Of course, most Americans weren't aware of this for the several decades that lead was being vaped into the atmosphere, mainly because all health science on it was performed by the very people putting lead in the gasoline in the first place: the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation.
Related: 5 Deeply Evil Corporations That Transcend Everyday Badness
Yes, This Story Has An Evil Scientist
Real-life Bond villain Dr. Robert Kehoe worked for Ethyl as their chief medical advisor for 40 straight years, from 1925 to 1965 -- basically the entire time leaded gasoline was the dominant fuel in the U.S. He spent that time reassuring everyone that in his expert opinion as a guy being paid by a company to study the safety of that company's most profitable product, said product was completely safe.
Sure, it was really hard to argue that the employees making leaded gasoline who were dying or going mad were just coincidentally catching some unrelated exotic disease. But it was much harder to prove any effects on the people merely breathing the exhaust of cars burning the stuff those employees were making (that is, everyone). And it was in that falsely gray area where Ethyl thrived.
Kehoe based much of his work on a key idea. It's even named after the Dr. No of Ethyl's SPECTRE, the Kehoe Rule. The rule went that if Ethyl's product was conclusively proven to be poisoning the public, they'd stop making it ... with the catch being that they'd never find the science conclusive or unbiased enough to accept it. In other words, the burden of proof was firmly on everyone but the multi-billion-dollar corporation.
Related: 23 Real-Life Mad Scientists Deleted From Your History Books
Enter Clair Patterson
Clair Patterson had earned a master's degree in only nine months, which was one of the things that got him on the Manhattan Project. But it was his work at the California Institute of Technology, when he was trying to figure out what age to put on Mother Nature's birth certificate, that brought him into the crosshairs of Kehoe and Ethyl.
Patterson kept finding traces of lead in his samples of, well, everything in the modern world. He began to experiment using the latest methods of the time, comparing fragments with 1,600-year-old pre-Columbian bones using equipment that shut out background lead contamination. His results were startling: Industrial man had raised the levels of lead in himself by 100 times and in the air by 1,000 times. Patterson figured out that leaded gasoline was the culprit, and went public in 1965.
Related: 5 People You've Never Heard Of Who Saved The World
And Then The Fight Turned Ugly
Ethyl first tried to bribe Patterson into joining them, but when Patterson refused, they brought out the full force of their public fuckery. His contracts with the California Petroleum Institute and the Public Health Service weren't renewed. Ethyl allegedly used their power over members of the Cal Tech board to try to get Patterson's department chair to fire him. But even threatening Van Helsing's career couldn't remove the stake in the heart of Ethyl.
Patterson had the science on his side, and just as we'd expect in our hypothetical sci-fi action movie (if not real life), science won. A congressional subcommittee would look at the data from both men in 1966. And I know this sounds weird, but they believed the respected academic over the corporate mouthpiece. In 1969, the Justice Department went after the automakers, accusing them of suppressing the data and technology that could clean up their vehicles' emissions. Finally, GM announced in the early '70s that it would modify its vehicles to run on unleaded gasoline.
Ethyl didn't give up. A decade later, they would make one last attempt to roll back lead regulations altogether under Anne Gorsuch's tenure as head of the Reagan EPA (and if that name sounds familiar, yes, she's the mother of Supreme Court musical chair squatter Neil). But like a B-movie villain, Ann went and publicly monologued about the plan early, which caused a firestorm. Finally, 1986 would mark the actual year lead was banned from being an additive to gasoline sold in the U.S.
Related: 16 Diabolical Acts Of Evil By Famous Corporations
And Then Everything Was Fine! Well, Not Really
Despite the date carved on leaded gasoline's U.S. tombstone, it's not as if that particularly stopped Ethyl. Like Big Tobacco, Big Lead For You To Breathe simply focused more on countries with weaker environmental laws. Eastern Europe was a big market, for example. The producers of leaded gasoline even followed another of Kehoe's ideas by upping the percentage of lead overseas to pad their pocketbooks even more. And the Kehoe Rule still dominates other industries, insisting insist on an impossible burden of proof before making changes. It turns out you can take the lead out of the gasoline, but you can't take the greed out of the manufacturers.
Don't take this to mean that Patterson didn't help. He did. Millions were saved from a lifetime of neurological and other health defects. When lead isn't infesting our brains, there's strong correlative evidence that what comes next is a sharp decline in violent crime. Not only does that alone make Patterson a hero, but this is exactly the kind of solution that never occurs to Bruce Wayne.
Andrew McRae has books and eBooks available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. He can also be found on Instagram and Facebook, as well as writing for Lewtonbus.
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