Is This the Greatest Public Health Achievement in the 20th Century?

Story at-a-glance -

  • Leaded gasoline was used for 80 years before the lead was removed, despite the fact of its known toxicity for at least 2,000 years
  • Clair Patterson, PhD was instrumental in defeating the oil industry and getting lead removed from gas. He’s an unsung public health hero from the 20th century most have never heard of
  • The story of leaded gasoline, which “hid” its toxicity behind the name “ethyl gasoline,” has great similarities with both dental amalgams (which are 50 percent mercury yet are referred to as “silver” fillings), and fluoride

By Dr. Mercola

I recently caught up on my Netflix queue and watched episode seven of Cosmos, and was delighted to learn about one of the greatest heroes of the 20th century that I had never heard of.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has called water fluoridation the greatest public health achievement of the 20th Century. Clearly, they got that WRONG.

Many have forgotten that leaded gasoline was used for 80 years before the lead was removed, despite the fact that its toxicity has been known for at least 2,000 years.

Clair Patterson, PhD was instrumental in defeating the oil industry and getting lead removed from gas, and that definitely beats water fluoridation in terms of protecting public health.

Patterson is an unsung public health hero of the 20th century that most people have never heard of. The featured video is a 30-minute summary of the evolution of leaded gas, and ultimately, its removal, which was no small feat.

You can watch episode seven of Cosmos on Netflix for the full story, or watch this hidden gem video at the top of the page that took me hours of online searching to find. I was really surprised, actually shocked, that this story is not plastered all over YouTube.

Most likely this is related to the fact the story is 50 years old. Nevertheless, please watch the video as it is a very powerful testimony that will help put a perspective on many of the health challenges we face today.

The auto and chemical industries used the same techniques back then as they do now; promoting, defending, manipulating government officials, and molding public opinion in order to profit from a toxic product, all while knowing exactly the kind of harm it causes.

My hope is that the videos and this powerful story will motivate and inspire you to become a health advocate in your local community. It may take decades, and you may be vilified, but ultimately you will enjoy sweet victory by protecting millions of innocents from being harmed.

The History of Leaded Gasoline

In the 1920s, lead was added to gasoline in order to make it a more efficient fuel. At that time, it was already well known that lead caused neurological harm, especially to children, in which it has been shown to lower IQ.

The first automobiles produced used all sorts of fuels — anything that would turn over a combustion engine, including benzene from coal, synthetic gasolines, and alcohol from farm crops.

A number of European countries used blends of alcohol as their primary fuel, and alcohol was predicted to become the choice of the future. It was more expensive than oil however, which made it less attractive.

Once the high compression engine was invented, car manufacturers started running into performance problems. General Motors diagnosed the problem, realizing that the problem originated with the fuel.

Large amounts of money were invested to figure out how to raise the octane level to reduce engine knocking. General Motors tried about 15,000 different combinations of elements to find a solution to the problem.

Adding benzene from coal to gasoline was found to work. Ditto for adding grain alcohol. Adding 10 percent alcohol to gasoline raised the quality of the fuel, causing less knocking in the engine. It also had other benefits, including clean combustion, which eliminated soot emissions, and increased horsepower without engine knocking.

But as research continued, General Motors determined that adding lead to the gasoline produced “an ideal anti-knock fuel.” It was ideal because manufacturing the lead additive, tetraethyl lead, would allow them to make the greatest profits.

They were very careful to avoid using the word “lead,” a known poison. Instead they created a rather benign sounding euphemistic chemical derivative from tetraethyl lead and called it “ethyl.” They even branded it with a female named Ethyl.

Standard Oil, the biggest oil company in the US, partnered with General Motors, creating a joint corporation known as Ethyl Corporation.

Ironically, the lead researcher at General Motors ended up with lead poisoning from the experiments, yet he still marveled about the profits the company stood to make.

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Why Opt for a More Toxic Solution?

As mentioned, alcohol additives basically provided the same benefit — it prevented engine knocking and boosted horsepower — while having added benefits like cleaner combustion.

So why exactly did a more toxic solution win out? In a word: profitability. Leaded gasoline had a much higher profit margin.

As explained in the film, by adding a percentage of alcohol to the gasoline, the oil industry stood to lose a large amount of petroleum sales, anywhere from 10 to 20 percent, depending on how much alcohol was added.

On the other hand, by adding lead to gasoline, the oil industry had a product it could control in its entirety, and that was their aim.

Considering the fact that lead is one of the best known poisons in mankind’s history, this decision really epitomizes the evil that goes along with unbridled greed. Even the ancient Romans knew that lead could cause insanity and led to death.

Public health officials did object to the addition of lead to gasoline. They were greatly concerned about the idea of adding hundreds of thousands of tons of a well-known industrial poison into the environment every year.

General Motors eventually capitulated and agreed to finance an investigation into the health effects of leaded gasoline.

What’s in a Name?

The US Bureau of Mines, which wrote up the report, was asked by General Motors to avoid the term “lead gasoline.” The Bureau complied, and instead used the term “ethyl gasoline,” which was part of the name of the additive.

There’s a great similarity here with dental amalgams. Amalgam is 50 percent mercury, and rightfully should be referred to as mercury amalgams, or mercury fillings. But instead, they were termed “silver fillings,” referring to their color rather than their content. This misdirection has been exceptionally successful, and still to this day many do not realize that amalgams contain mercury.

In this case, Ethyl was a common name for a woman, and the association with a sweet woman’s name effectively diverted attention from the fact that it contained toxic lead. As mentioned, ads for ethyl gasoline even included the image of a young, beautiful woman named Ethyl, to cement this benevolent association.

However, there were ominous signs that leaded gas was a huge mistake right from the start. During the fall of 1924 — the year the first tetraethyl lead facility opened — reports quickly emerged of workers getting ill, suffering hallucinations, and even dying.

As reported in the film, the process used to manufacture tetraethyl lead was so hazardous that within the first month of operation, five workers went “violently insane” and died, and another 45 were severely injured by lead poisoning. This caused an enormous public outcry, and people were shocked to realize that “ethyl gasoline” in fact contained lead — a toxin known to cause insanity and death since the times of the Romans...

Government Backed Big Oil

The government was urged to conduct an investigation, and a number of cities banned the sale of leaded gas. Months later the Surgeon General, Hugh Smith Cumming, invited industry leaders and independent experts to a conference to assess the situation.

Curiously, the Surgeon General ended the meeting early, after just one day instead of the four that were planned, and six months later, the health authorities concluded that “there are no good grounds for prohibiting the use of ethyl gasoline,” and the ban on the sale of leaded gas was lifted. Moreover, as noted in the film:

“The resistance to leaded gasoline disappeared, partly because there was a Federal Trade Commission order in the United States that banned any negative advertising about leaded gasoline. So if you were selling a competitive product, you couldn’t say that leaded gasoline was poisonous.”

The US Public Health Service also reached out to other nations saying they’d studied ethyl gasoline, and since no ill effects were found, these other countries should consider using it too. And thus, the use of leaded gasoline spread across the world at the recommendation from one of the highest health authorities in the world.

Enter Clair Patterson, PhD and Public Health Advocate Extraordinaire...

Clair Patterson, PhD may seem like an unlikely candidate to save the day in this story. He was a geochemist who received his PhD, from the University of Chicago and then worked at Cal Tech, one of the most prestigious universities in the US. He worked on the Manhattan Project but is best known for his pioneering work in 1963 for establishing the age of the earth as being 4.5 billion years old. He was able to do this by analyzing certain isotopes of lead.1,2

He struggled for many years with conflicting results from his research when he finally realized the problems were the result of massive environmental lead contamination.

Initially he couldn’t determine the source of the lead contamination. The answer became apparent when he analyzed ancient pristine ice core samples taken in Greenland. He could clearly show how the lead levels in Greenland’s ice layers corresponded to eras such as the Roman era, the industrial revolution, and then, following the advent of leaded gasoline in the mid-1920s, a major spike in lead concentrations occurred.

He also found that the amount of lead in the environment was about 80 times the amount deposited in the ocean sediments, which explained his research discrepancies in the age of the earth determination. He was the first to fully appreciate that leaded gasoline had polluted every last corner of the globe — even the most remote of areas, and as a result everyone was being exposed to industrial lead pollution with very serious health consequences.

Then came another piece of shocking news. Animals in the Staten Island Zoo were poisoned. Some of the animals died, and one black leopard was paralyzed. The investigation revealed the poison was lead, and that it was coming from the environment. At that time, an estimated 200,000 tons of lead were being deposited into urban environments each year, and the animals were suffering the repercussions.  

Patterson Continued His Campaign to Remove Lead from Gas

In 1965, Patterson tried to draw public attention to the problem of increased lead levels in the environment and the food chain due to lead from industrial sources with the publication of his book, Contaminated and Natural Lead Environments of Man. In his effort to ensure that lead was removed from gasoline, Patterson ran up against the lobbying power of the oil and auto industries.

In an effort to preserve their profits, these industries used their powerful influence to launch a massive discrediting campaign against him and his research. Patterson was refused contracts with many research organizations, including the supposedly “neutral” United States Public Health Service. In 1971, he was also excluded from a National Research Council (NRC) panel on atmospheric lead contamination, even though he was the world expert on the subject at that time. Imagine how you would feel if you were the world expert and excluded from an expert panel because of a stance you took to protect the public health.

Despite these massive discrediting efforts, he doggedly pursued the elimination of lead from gasoline. Finally, in 1975, the US mandated the use of unleaded gasoline to protect catalytic converters. It took another 11 years but in 1986, Patterson's persistence caused the removal of lead from all gasoline in the US and as a result, blood lead levels in Americans dropped by 80 percent by the late 1990s. In my view he is one of the greatest unrecognized public health heroes of the 20th century. 

A Cautionary Tale of the Price of Corporate Greed

As noted in the film, this one substance, tetraethyl lead, added to gasoline, has had near-unfathomable repercussions for the health of the global community. Children exposed to lead were found to have significantly decreased IQ, for example. In one study, there was a six point difference in average IQ scores between children with the highest levels of lead in their teeth and those with the lowest levels.

Those with high lead exposure during childhood also had a seven-fold increased risk of not finishing high school, so the researchers were able to demonstrate that exposure to leaded gas had real-life, long-term ramifications on health and productivity. The loss in productivity in the US alone from these reductions in IQ is in the many billions of dollars.

By the end of the 1990s, lead was completely phased out of gasoline, replaced instead with the original alternative — alcohol. From beginning to end, lead was used in gasoline for nearly 80 years, causing unimaginable harm across the globe, just because the oil industry didn’t want to forgo a portion of its potential profits. We could have used alcohol to boost the octane level all along, had less greedy minds prevailed.

I find remarkable similarities between the experiences of Patterson, who was the world expert in his area and all the challenges he had in removing lead from gasoline when it was a known toxin for 2,000 years, and another toxin, fluoride, which was reinvented as a dental prophylactic in order to save the aluminum industry from lawsuits and exorbitant hazardous waste disposal costs... Fluoride, just like lead, is also associated with reductions in IQ which was one of the reasons they were finally able to get lead banned.

Unfortunately, fluoride doesn’t have the same history as a known toxin, so it’s been difficult to get it removed from drinking water. However, it’s just a matter of time. Eventually, the truth and the protection of human health will prevail. But we need to learn from history and recognize that there are very powerful corporate influences that will lodge massive discrediting campaigns to anyone or any organization that seeks to tell the truth or protect the public health on this issue.

Thankfully, we are making progress with other chemicals, like flame retardants, which are used in everything from furniture to electronics. They too have been linked to IQ reductions. And the proliferation of these toxic chemicals and the strong resistance to cut down on their use can again be traced back to the chemical industry’s “looking out for number one,” meaning itself, and its profits. We still have a ways to go here, but I suspect we, just like Patterson, will ultimately be victorious in the removal of both flame retardants and fluoride, although flame retardants will likely be eliminated before fluoride is.

Tips to Reduce Your Chemical Exposure at Home

Toxins to Avoid if Pregnant Infographic Preview

Certainly, there’s no shortage of toxic chemicals to avoid. The infographic above highlights some of the most common and most dangerous ones, which includes lead, mercury, and fluoride. Implementing the following measures will help you avoid a number of different chemicals from a wide variety of sources. To sum it up, stick to whole foods and natural products around your home.

The fewer ingredients a product contains, the better, and try to make sure anything you put on or in your body – or use around your home – contains only substances you're familiar with. If you can't pronounce it, you probably don't want it anywhere near your family.

  1. As much as possible, buy and eat organic produce and free-range, organic meats to reduce your exposure to added hormones, pesticides, and fertilizers. Also avoid milk and other dairy products that contain the genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST).
  2. Rather than eating conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury, supplement with a high-quality purified krill oil, or eat smaller fish or fish that is wild-caught and lab tested for purity. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon is about the only fish I eat for these reasons.
  3. Buy products that come in glass bottles or jars, rather than plastic or canned, since chemicals can leach out of plastics and into the contents.
  4. Store your food and beverages in glass rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap.
  5. Use glass baby bottles and avoid plastic sippy cups for your little ones.
  6. Eat mostly raw, fresh foods. Processed, prepackaged foods (of all kinds) are a common source of chemicals such as BPA and phthalates.
  7. Replace your non-stick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware.
  8. Filter your tap water — both for drinking and bathing. If you can only afford to do one, filtering your bathing water may be more important, as your skin absorbs contaminants. To remove the endocrine-disrupting herbicide Atrazine, make sure the filter is certified to remove it. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), perchlorate can be filtered out using a reverse osmosis filter.
  9. Look for products that are made by companies that are earth-friendly, animal-friendly, green, non-toxic, and/or 100 percent organic. This applies to everything from food and personal care products to building materials, carpeting, paint, baby items, upholstery, and more.
  10. Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to remove house dust, which is often contaminated with traces of chemicals.
  11. When buying new products such as furniture, mattresses, or carpet padding, ask what type of fire retardant it contains. Be mindful of and/or avoid items containing PBDEs, antimony, formaldehyde, boric acid, and other brominated chemicals. As you replace these toxic items around your home, select those that contain naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, and cotton.
  12. Avoid stain- and water-resistant clothing, furniture, and carpets to avoid perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs).
  13. Minimize your use of plastic baby and child toys, opting for those made of natural wood or fabric instead.
  14. Only use natural cleaning products in your home or make your own. Avoid products that contain 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME) — two toxic glycol ethers that can damage fertility and cause fetal harm.
  15. Switch over to organic brands of toiletries such as shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants, and cosmetics. You can replace many different products with coconut oil and baking soda, for example.
  16. Replace feminine hygiene products like tampons and sanitary pads with safer alternatives.
  17. Avoid artificial air fresheners, dryer sheets, fabric softeners, or other synthetic fragrances.
  18. Look for products that are fragrance-free. One artificial fragrance can contain hundreds – even thousands – of potentially toxic chemicals.
  19. Replace your vinyl shower curtain with one made of fabric.