Thomas Midgley Jr : Scientist Who Caused the Most Environmental Damage

Scientist Who Caused the Most Environmental Damage Thomas Midgley Jr.

When you go to buy gas, I’m sure there is a writing that catches your attention: Unleaded Gas. All types of gasoline currently being sold are unleaded. However, instead of saying gasoline directly, the phrase unleaded is highlighted. Because leaded gasoline has a scary story.

First of all, it is worth mentioning from the beginning: this article is not written in a judgmental tone, and the title of this article is the words of the environmental historian JR McNeill. This topic will be a series of two articles where we will reveal the bright and the dark sides of the story of unleaded gasoline. In this article, we will discuss the demonic part!

Leaded or Unleaded Gasoline

Perhaps the greatest development that emerged after the industrial revolution was automobiles. Automobiles were spreading at an extraordinary rate and becoming an incredible source of income. This interest gave birth to the fuel industry and gas stations began to be established. Then, by adding various additives, it was aimed to obtain the fuel more efficiently and cheaply. That’s why lead was added. The first gasoline produced and the gasoline we currently use are unleaded. I mean, gasoline was still unleaded before someone added lead to it. Until a certain discovery in 1921.

Fuel was causing pulsed combustion, or ‘knocking‘, in the engine cylinder. This was a situation that damaged the vehicle. This was one of the most important problems to be solved at that time. Midgley discovered in 1921 that this problem was solved when he added a substance to existing fuel. That substance was tetraethyl lead. It was known back then that lead was a poisonous element. That’s why they launched the name of this leaded product as “Ethyl” or “TEL”.


Was Leaded Gasoline the Only Remedy?

No. There were several harmless alternatives to tetraethyl lead. The gasoline-ethanol mixture also had almost the same level of “knocking” inhibition. However, this mixture was not preferred by companies. Because it was very simple to take ethanol and mix it with gasoline, so it was a job that anyone could easily do. It was very difficult to make a profit because it was not possible to patent ethanol. But making a profit by patenting TEL was considered an excellent idea for the company. So they did.

What Did It Cost?

Lead is a heavy metal and highly toxic. This was a well-known fact in the 1920s, but Midgley still argued that tetraethyl lead was harmless.

Thomas Midgley Jr came from a family of inventors. His father, Thomas Midgley Sr, had done a successful study of automobile tires. His grandfather, James Emerson, had invented the “toothed saw”. Expectations must have been high from Midgley as well, but he did not stop defending this new product.

In October 1924, questioned by skeptical journalists, Midgley dipped his hand in the tetraethyl lead mixture he had prepared. Midgley, who had kept his hand in this substance for a while, was trying to prove to people that there was no risk. However, he added that he would not do this every day to avoid taking risks. There was a reason for the doubt in his words.

Unleaded gasoline
An Old Sign

Also in the same year, there was a serious backlash against leaded gasoline after five workers who were exposed to TEL died at the Standard Oil Refinery in New Jersey. In 1926, a public health service report concluded that there is no reason to ban the sale of leaded gasoline” as long as workers are obeyed and protected.

Midgley was well aware of these harms of lead. In 1923, a year before his interview, he had gone to Florida to recuperate “to get some fresh air and get rid of the effects of lead.”

Why Is Lead Harmful? Poisoning Despite the Evidence

Studies have shown that car owners using leaded gasoline have trace amounts of lead in their blood. Traces of lead have even been found in dusty corners of garages. Although these damages were known at that time, some scientists argued that a low amount of lead would not be harmful. However, lead is a heavy metal. Heavy metals accumulate in our bodies and can reach dangerous levels over time. So even a trace amount of exposure is harmful. A medical report published at that time acknowledged this situation and stated that the level of lead in the blood could increase over time. But it went on like this:

Of course, that will be another generation’s problem.

Gas station

Leaded gasoline was especially dangerous for the new generation, our children. Because they were still immature, it could cause many systemic and neurological problems.

According to studies, lead exposure in childhood; can cause low IQ could and many serious harms such as hyperactivity, behavior problems, and learning difficulties. In addition, there are many studies showing that children exposed to lead are more likely to commit violence and crime. In addition, since lead is a heavy metal, its damage to the environment continues for many years. Therefore, lead poisoning is too big of a problem to be left to another generation!

Midgley’s Other Environmental Impact: CFC Gas

In the late 1920s, compounds such as ammonia, chloromethane, propane, and sulfur dioxide were used as refrigerants in air conditioning and refrigeration systems. These were effective but poisonous, flammable or explosive. Looking for a non-toxic, non-flammable alternative to these refrigerants, General Motors assembled a team including Midgley and Albert Leon Henne to develop such a compound.

The team soon decided to use alkyl halogens, which are highly volatile (necessary for a refrigerant) and also known to be chemically inert. They rejected the assumption that such compounds would be toxic, believing that the stability of the carbon-fluorine bond would be sufficient to prevent the release of hydrogen fluoride or other potential degradation products. The team eventually synthesized the first chlorofluorocarbon (CFC), dichlorodifluoromethane, which they named “Freon.”

Freon and other CFCs soon replaced other refrigerants. These gases are not used today because they are very harmful to the environment and damage the ozone layer.

CFC Was Also In Deodorants

Midgley’s legacy, the negative environmental impact of leaded gasoline and Freon, has been understood over time. Environmental historian JR McNeill has the opinion that Midgley had “more influence on the atmosphere than any other organism in Earth’s history“. The use of leaded gasoline, which he invented, has released large amounts of lead into the atmosphere all over the world. High atmospheric lead levels are linked to serious long-term health problems from childhood, including neurological disorders, and increased levels of violence and delinquency in cities.

Time magazine has included both leaded gasoline and CFCs in its “50 Worst Inventions” list.

The war to prove that these substances harm the environment continued until the mid-1970s. A scientist working on the bright side with all his abilities to expose the harms of lead appears on the stage of history: Clair Cameron Patterson, the Scientist Who Saved the World. In another article, we will examine the bright side of this war!

References and Further Readings

Eschner, K. (2016, December 9). Leaded Gas Was a Known Poison the Day It Was Invented.

Kitman, J. L. (2015, June 29). The Secret History of Lead. The Nation.

Wikimedia Foundation. (2021, July 19). Thomas Midgley Jr. Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Images not cited are used through Canva Pro with a royalty payment.

The proofreading has been done by Asu Pelin Akköse and Mete Esencan.

Would you like to support us? 

  • If you wish, you can support us by making a monthly or one-time donation via our Patreon account.

I Would Like To Support You!

  • For more detailed information, you can check our “Support Us!” page!

Mete Esencan

Hello everyone! I'm Mete Esencan. I am a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry at METU. I was planning to establish a platform by combining the research knowledge I gained during my basic science education and the management experience I gained in the METU Chemistry Society, which I was in charge of for three years. For this purpose, in February of 2021, I took the first step and established the OkButWhy, a platform where we can write articles as if to chat about science, art and philosophy. I wish everyone a pleasant reading!

Related Articles

Back to top button