This excerpt comes from an interesting book entitled The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum. It is basically a real-life series of detective stories centering round the first forensic unit in New York City in the 20’s and 30’s.
“The 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 the 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 ground.
Tetraethyl lead - or TEL, in industrial shorthand – solved that problem. The compound was actually a nineteenth-century discovery from European laboratories. But a GM engineer, one Thomas Midgley Jr., saw a new use for it, building on research done by a scientific colleague, Charles Kettering. Both men realized that tetraethyl lead (a chemical blending of lead, carbon, and hydrogen) essentially smoothed out the rough patches in gasoline combustion. As the engine churned and burned fuel, the circulating lead formula and its by-products bounded with gasoline remnants that hadn’t ignited, buffering them over into nonexplosive materials.
The innovative Midgley – he would later develop the chlorofluorocarbon coolant called Freon - tinkered with the formula until he felt he had just the right TEL mixture for gasoline going into motor vehicles.
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 the antiknock ingredient, plant laborers’ fear of the place had steadily increased. The men who worked there, in the clanking hear 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.
The statement failed to impress the State of New Jersey, which ordered the plant closed. The local district attorney wasn’t impressed either. He called Charles Norris and asked to borrow his toxicologist for some independent research into the chemistry brewed in the hated building.
Norris [Chief of Forensics] was pleased to accommodate that request. He hadn’t liked Standard Oil’s statement and had decided, in fact, to issue his own, explicitly contradicting the industry’s perspective on TEL: ‘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 is well known for its tendency to damage the nervous system. And lead-laced vapors, like those emitted in TEL manufacturing, are absorbed through the skin and inhaled directly into the lungs. Months before the New Jersey workers died, several of the supervisors at the “looney gas building” had actually recommended that production be shut down.
In answer to this new round of criticisms, Standard Oil went straight to the source. It brought in Midgley, the TEL developer, to hold a press conference at its Manhattan offices. He assured reporters that handled properly there was nothing dangerous about his prize 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.”
The management at Dupont and Standard Oil blamed the workers for failing to protect themselves. 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 may not have realized that working with TEL was ‘man’s work,’ with all the risks implied.