How leaded fuel was sold for 100 years, despite knowing its health risks

A 1960s Southern California gas station is being restored.

A new fuel blend was poured into one of the engines at the General GM lab in Dayton, Ohio, on December 9, 1921. The engine began to put out more power.

The fuel was made from lead. Despite the known health risks of lead, General Motor Company rushed gasoline with it's dilution. They named it after the gas.

The development of leaded gasoline took place on that day 100 years ago. As a historian of media and the environment, I see this anniversary as a time to reflect on the role of public health advocates and environmental journalists in preventing profit-driven tragedy.

Scientists working for General GM discovered that they could greatly improve the efficiency and longevity of engines in the 1920s.

Both lead and death.

The dangers of lead poisoning were well known by the early 1920s.

Public health experts questioned the decision of GM to sell leaded gasoline. One called lead a serious menace to public health and the other a poison that was malicious and creeping.


Disaster struck in October 1924, after warnings were ignored by General GM and Standard Oil. Two dozen workers at a refinery in New Jersey were poisoned by a poorly designed GM process. They became confused, then became enraged and collapsed into hysterical laughter. Many were wrestled into straitjackets. Six died and the rest were hospitalized. Several dozen more workers were disabled and 11 more died at GM and other plants in the US.

The news media began to criticize Standard Oil and raise concerns over Ethyl gas with articles and cartoons.

The media is being fought.

The media was hostile from the beginning. At the first press conference about the 1924 Ethyl disaster, a spokesman for Standard Oil advised the media that nothing should be said about the matter in the public interest.

The issue of public health versus industrial progress was framed in-depth by newspaper coverage in the spring of 1925. The New York World asked whether leaded gasoline would poison people. Midgley joked about public health concerns and insisted that leaded gasoline was the only way to raise fuel power. Henderson estimated that 30 tons of lead would fall in a dusty rain on New York's Fifth Avenue every year.