The (Standard Oil Refinery) factory looked harmless enough from the outside, a typical brick building with narrow windows set in stone. Inside, the familiar sounds of work - the hiss and clank of the pipes, the grumble and clatter of the retorts - could be heard. But then came 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 car engines. Even GM’s best cars, including its elegant Cadillacs, had banged so loudly under the hood that it sounded to customers as if the engines were breaking apart. The noise was a by-product of the engine’s design, which involved a somewhat inefficient combustion process. This meant that the gasoline fuel was never completely burned away; the remnants of gasoline tended to heat, ignite, and explode, sometimes loudly enough to startle a driver into losing control.

Tetraethyl lead - or TEL, in industrial shorthand - solved the problem.


The additive was made in the “looney gas building,” the employee nickname for Standard Oil’s TEL processing plant. In the twelve months since the company began making he antiknock ingredient, plant laborers’ fear of the place had steadily increased. The men who worked there, in the clanking heat and drifting vapors, had become a little odd - moody, short-tempered, unable to sleep. They’d started getting lost on the familiar plant grounds, sometimes had trouble remembering their friends. And then in September 1924 the workers started collapsing, going into convulsions, babbling deliriously. By the end of October, thirty-two of the forty-nine TEL workers were in the hospital, and five had died.

Standard Oil issued a cool response: “These men probably went insane because they worked too hard,” according to the building manager. And those who didn’t survive had merely worked themselves to death. Other than that, the company didn’t see a problem.


From The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

That’s some cold shit right there. Morality of the marketplace. Remember this the next time somebody claims that the market regulates itself. The market didn’t eliminate lead from gasoline. The government did.