At the Door of the Loony Gas Building

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The only way to start this story is by opening a door – the door leading into the Loony Gas building.

The workers at the Standard Oil Refinery in New Jersey, gave the building that name, waving goodbye to their colleagues when they entered the shadowed opening, promising to have undertakers waiting when they came out. The building was only one year old, that fall of 1924, but it had earned the nickname.

It looked harmless enough from the outside, the usual style of factory buildings on the New Jersey site, the familiar rectangle of neat red brick with narrow windows set in stone. Inside, the first impression was also of routine, noise and heat, the hiss and clank of the pipes, the grumble and clatter of the retorts.  And then the unfamiliar, a smell carried by vapors rising from the machinery, not the usual odor of gasoline, but the dull musty scent of tetraethyl lead.

Five years earlier, a chemical engineer working for General Motors had discovered that tetraethyl lead cured a stubborn knocking problem in the car engines. Even GM’s best cars,  its elegant Cadillacs, banged so loudly under the hood that customers worried that the engines were breaking apart. The noise was a natural byproduct of the engine’s design in which gasoline tended to mix with air, heat, spontaneously ignite and explode, sometimes loudly enough to startle a driver into losing control.*

Tetraethyl lead – or TEL as the industrial shorthand referred to it – solved that problem. As we know now – or, more accurately, have known for decades now – it caused many more.  But what most people don’t know – and what I didn’t learn until I started researching the toxicology of the early 20th century – is that scientists warned of, and tried to prevent, those lead-based problems back in the 1920s.   Their evidence was, in fact, so solid that that some cities, like New York, attempted to block its use. They were overruled by a federal government that preferred to ally itself with major corporations. A cautionary tale, you might say,  although not a lesson we’ve followed with any notable consistency.

Tetraethyl lead was nothing new back then; it was actually a 19th century discovery from European laboratories. But that innovative GM engineer, one Thomas Midgley, Jr., put it to a new use. (Midgley would later become notorious among environmentalists for his contribution not only to leaded gasoline but to the worldwide use of chlorofluorocarbons).

Midgley was working under the direction of GM research head Charles Kettering when he made his key discovery regarding those knocking engines:  tetraethyl lead (a chemical blending of lead, carbon and hydrogen) bonded with the fuel,  enveloping it into a happily non-explosive material.

Photo credit: Toxipedia

Both the automobile and the oil industry took instantly to Midgley’s anti-knock solution, pouring money into production facilities, advertising its wonders.  One of the earliest factories to make the additive was the Standard Oil facility in Bayway, New Jersey. And it was there, in the loony gas building,  that the warning signs became obvious.

In the twelve months since the company had begun making the anti-knock ingredient, plant laborers’ fear of the place had steadily increased. The men who worked in the TEL building, in the clanking heat and drifting vapors, had become increasingly odd – moody, short-tempered, unable to sleep. Some of the workers started getting lost on the familiar plant grounds, had trouble even remembering their friends. And then, in October of 1924, laborers from that same building started collapsing, going into convulsions, babbling deliriously. By the end of September, 32 of the 49 TEL workers were in the hospital and five of them died.

Standard Oil issued a coolly dismissive  response: “These men probably went insane because they worked too hard,” the building manager told The New York Times. Those who didn’t survive had merely worked themselves to death, he continued, due to enthusiasm for the job.

Other than that, the company didn’t really see a problem at all.

The Standard Oil explanation failed to impress the state of New Jersey. It ordered the plant closed. The local district attorney wasn’t impressed either. He called the chief medical examiner from New York City, Charles Norris, and asked if his innovative chemistry division could do some research into the compound.

Norris was happy to do so. He hadn’t liked Standard Oil’s position either.  He decided, in fact, to issue his own statement, contradicting the industry’s perspective on TEL in explicit terms: “The fact that it is readily absorbed and highly poisonous was discovered in Germany about 1854 when tetraethyl lead was discovered, and it has not been used in industry during most of its seventy years since then because of its known deadliness.”

Investigators discovered that before the illnesses at Standard Oil, another TEL processor, the DuPont Company, had lost two workers at its Dayton, Ohio plant.  They had died from lead poisoning. Lead was well known, as Norris emphasized, for its tendency to damage the nervous system. And lead-laced vapors, like those emitted in TEL manufacturing, absorbed through the skin and were inhaled directly into the lungs.

It turned out, in fact, that months before the New Jersey workers died, several of the supervisors at the loony gas building had recommended that the production be shut down. They’d become alarmed themselves by the way the increasingly bizarre behavior of the workers and by the signs of obvious illness.

Standard Oil did not back down.  In answer to this new round of criticisms, the company organized a press conference at its Manhattan offices (not in New Jersey, of course), featuring the developer of tetraethyl lead himself. Midgley assured reporters that handled properly there was nothing dangerous about his prized discovery. To prove it, he washed his hands in a bowl filled with TEL. “I’m taking no chances whatever,” he said. “Nor would I take any chances by doing that every day.”

Like Standard Oil executives, he blamed the workers, both at Dupont and at the New Jersey plant, for failing to protect themselves properly. Gloves and masks had been available at the refinery; it was the workers’ responsibility to wear them. But they weren’t well educated men, a company vice president explained to the reporters, and perhaps the employees hadn’t realized that working with TEL was “man’s work”, with all the risks implied.

He was right, of course, that the loony gas workers didn’t know what the risks were. But neither – even at that moment – did he.

The first of a two part blog series on the early history of leaded gasoline. I discovered this while researching The Poisoner’s Handbook and I’ve always considered it a fascinating and troubling part of our forgotten chemical history.

*The description of the anti-knock problem was updated in response to a very smart comment which pointed out that I had described it as a product of incomplete combustion when the explosions actually tended to occur pre-combustion as pockets of air and gas circulating in the engine ignite. For some excellent and more technical descriptions, do check the comment section.


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