Yesterday I mentioned TIbbles the Cat who is the only creature known to have single-handedly caused the extinction of an entire species. Today I’ll talk about another rather extraordinary individual.
If I asked you what human being has caused the most environmental damage in history, you may think of the famous industrialists of the 1800s and early 1900s such as Henry Ford or Andrew Carnegie, or possibly the Koch brothers of our time (if you don’t know about the Koch brothers, take a minute to look ’em up). But you probably would’t think of Thomas Midgley.
Back in the early part of the 1900s it was discovered that adding iodine to fuel reduced engine knock just a bit. Thomas Midgley Jr., an engineer and chemist working for General Motors, decided to look into the situation further and after experimenting around a bit found that adding lead (tetraethyllead, or “ethyl,” commonly referred to as TEL) to gasoline worked much better.
Of course within just a few years people realized that leaded gasoline was a potent neurotoxin and a deadly pollutant (Midgley himself suffered lead poisoning in 1923 and had to move to Florida for fresh air), but lacking governmental oversight the petroleum industry, notably ExxonMobile, pushed to use the additive. GM and DuPont built a plant to produce TEL in 1923, but halted production after ten people at the plant died of lead poisoning. In 1924 ExxonMobile built a their own chemical plant to produce TEL, but by mid-year the workers were suffering from hallucinations, insanity, and five more folks died of lead poisoning. At a press conference later that year Midgley poured TEL over his hands and breathed the fumes to prove how safe it was. He had to take a leave of absence a few weeks later to recover – again – from lead poisoning.
A few years later in 1926 a special government committee declared that there were no good grounds to ban TEL, but should its use become more widespread further study would be necessary. In a sweeping and generous wave of compassion, GM, DuPont, and MobileExxon funded all studies of TEL for the next forty years…
(It’s since been shown that as well as being a deadly toxin, even very low exposure to airborne lead significantly lowers a person’s IQ and has other adverse effects on people – especially children. TEL has also been linked to violent crime, but that’s another story.)
That was the first of Mr. Midgley’s inventions… There’s more.
After he recovered from lead poisoning, GM moved Mr. Midgley to their Frigidaire division, where he worked on air conditioning and refrigeration systems. At the time the refrigerants used were all highly toxic and in some cases flammable. Mr Midgley, possibly in an effort to atone for the damage caused by his previous work, decided to find an inert gas to replace the dangerous refrigerants. His research quickly led to dichlorodifluoromethane – the very first chlorofluorocarbon or CFC. He named the safe gas “Freon.” Freon and other related CFCs were soon widely used as refrigerants and in spray cans…
And, as we now now, CFCs very quickly destroyed the ozone layer, causing all sorts of environmental havoc and health issues.
So, Mr. Midgley was single-handedly responsible for two of the largest ecological and health blunders in history.