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The Man Who Destroyed the Atmosphere
October 19, 2006 11:47 PM   Subscribe

Meet the man who "had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in earth history" - Thomas Midgley, Jr. Midgley invented leaded gasoline in 1921 to stop cars from knocking. In the process, he created a huge new industry, increased by 500 times the atmospheric lead levels, and was part of a multi-decade coverup of lead's effects that put the tobacco industry to shame [note: article is both terrific and very long] and still continues today. Just a few years later, he invented chlorofluorocarbons, and, with a dramatic demonstration of their safety, usured in an era of cheap air conditioning and social change, as well as ozone depletion. In the end, he was killed by one of his inventions, though it was neither lead nor CFCs that were responsible. He is sometimes remembered fondly, he is more often vilified.
posted by blahblahblah (30 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite

 
technology is amoral

this post rocks
posted by slickvaguely at 11:56 PM on October 19, 2006


Well done sir. Nice post. New information (to me), well linked, entertainingly presented.
posted by Dunwitty at 11:56 PM on October 19, 2006


Of course, when it comes to causing premature human deaths for idealistic reasons, he's a piker compared to Rachel Carson.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:15 AM on October 20, 2006


Of course, when it comes to causing premature human deaths for idealistic reasons, he's a piker compared to Rachel Carson.

Or George W. Bush, for that matter. Great post, btw.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:28 AM on October 20, 2006


when it comes to causing premature human deaths for idealistic reasons, he's a piker compared to Rachel Carson.

Oookay. That needs some explanation. Right after you explain how Gandhi was gifted at genocide. And card cheating.
posted by sourwookie at 12:29 AM on October 20, 2006


"Of course, when it comes to causing premature human deaths for idealistic reasons, he's a piker compared to Rachel Carson."

Christ, I fucking hate your attitude, but you have a point. Africa should be fucking blanketed with DDT. I don't care how many birds die in the process. And I love birds.

As for Midge... I dunno, I'm a big halocarbon fan, and I really appreciate the beauty of CFCs. The effect on ozone is a prime example of "unintended consequences." No one could have predicted that shit. I mean, hell, when it was finally figured out, it won a fucking Nobel Prize. Does that mean the technology shouldn't have gone forward? I really don't know. I do know that you can't make an omlette without breaking a few eggs. And how many lives has refrigeration saved? How many lives could it potentially save if more people had access to it?
posted by mr_roboto at 12:45 AM on October 20, 2006


Oh, and by the way: DDT? A halocarbon. See how it all comes together?
posted by mr_roboto at 12:47 AM on October 20, 2006


Well, it is reasonable to assume that CFCs did actually save lives at the time. But anyway.
posted by delmoi at 1:03 AM on October 20, 2006


I would also mention that leaded fuel helped win WW2 and defeat Nazi genocide and Imperial Japanese hegemony.

On the downside CFCs made inexpensive home air-conditioning possible which led to the migration of old people to Florida costing Gore the 2000 election. (Yet another environmental crime he committed)
posted by Megafly at 1:35 AM on October 20, 2006


Of course, when it comes to causing premature human deaths for idealistic reasons, he's a piker compared to Rachel Carson.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste


Yea, because objecting to the spreading of toxins is always BAD. The solution to pollution is dilution!
posted by rough ashlar at 3:25 AM on October 20, 2006


I remember reading this in Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything and it amazed me. Good find.
posted by trinarian at 3:50 AM on October 20, 2006


I don't want to make a record of these kinds of things here, but I agree with SCDB for once; there have never been any studies showing that DDT actually affects the bird populations that Carson said it did.

Malaria is one of the world's leading causes of death, killing tens of millions of underprivileged people a year, and it could have been virtually eliminated by now if it wasn't for Rachel Carson.
posted by nasreddin at 3:56 AM on October 20, 2006


there have never been any studies showing that DDT actually affects the bird populations that Carson said it did.
posted by nasreddin at 3:56 AM PST


What was wrong with

http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/165/3889/199

posted by rough ashlar at 4:29 AM on October 20, 2006


Blanket and and agricultural spraying of DDT is not good but spraying DDT inside houses in Africa (and using mosquito nets soaked in DDT) has cut down greatly on the number of malaria infections where it has been used. Unfortunately during the global ban on malaria this was quite difficult to carry out.
posted by PenDevil at 5:34 AM on October 20, 2006


uh... global ban on DDT that is (although I'm all for a global ban on malaria though)
posted by PenDevil at 5:37 AM on October 20, 2006


mr_roboto: I agree that CFCs were an example of inintended consequences, but Midge's history with lead was more of a problem, since he definitely knew better, having suffered from lead poisoning himself:
When Thomas Midgley accepted the Nichols Medal in March, 1923, he had almost returned to normal after fighting a winter-long battle with lead poisoning. He and three other lab employees had experienced "digestive derangements, subnormal body temperatures and reduced blood pressure" from handling tetraethyl lead....

Throughout 1922, as the first plans were made to develop tetraethyl lead, Midgley had received alarming letters from four of the world's leading experts in the field: Wilson of MIT, Reid Hunt of Harvard, Yandell Henderson of Yale and Charles Kraus of Pottsdam in Germany. Kraus had worked on tetraethyl lead for many years and called it "a creeping and malicious poison" that had killed a senior scientist at his university.

...Despite his own condition, Midgley was nonchalant about the dangers of tetraethyl lead. He added: "It would not surprise me if in the course of using tetraethyl lead for a year that some of your men would experience a slight case of painter's colic. This is nothing to worry about as several of our boys have it."
In 1924, 80% of the workers at the Standard Oil Research labs working on lead additives either died or went insane from lead poisoning. You'd think that would be an effective warning.
posted by blahblahblah at 5:56 AM on October 20, 2006


I've always thought that Midgley's death was one of the most (EC) Tales From the "come-uppance" deaths of a high profile public figure.

It's quite a striking/metaphorical/cartoonish image (at least, with an overactive imagination) - Midgley tangled up in the web of his own design.
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 6:37 AM on October 20, 2006


Hmm. That should have read "Tales from the Crypt."
posted by SmileyChewtrain at 7:42 AM on October 20, 2006


mr_roboto writes "I'm a big halocarbon fan, and I really appreciate the beauty of CFCs. The effect on ozone is a prime example of 'unintended consequences.' No one could have predicted that shit. "

Ya, CFCs are amazingly useful chemicals with not even a hint of their drawback. There is zero chance they could have a) detected the problem and b) made the correlation with 1920s tech. The next time someone asks you what the space program has done for humanity trot out saving us from CFCs.
posted by Mitheral at 8:14 AM on October 20, 2006


The "DDT ban" myth is cute, but the facts just don't support it.

Rachel Carson's work led to a ban on agricultural use of DDT in the US and other countries. DDT for malaria control in developing countries was never banned and in fact has continued in many areas, often with funding from western nations.

Use of DDT for malaria control was abandonded in some places, not because of environmentalists but because mosquitoes developed resistance to DDT and because other control methods (treated nets, alternate pesticides) became more cost-effective.

Agricultural DDT bans may actually have saved lives by slowing the development of DDT-resistant mosquito strains.
posted by mbrubeck at 8:45 AM on October 20, 2006 [3 favorites]


mbrubeck, don't interfere with Steven's Cultural Revolution masturbation.
posted by dhartung at 11:05 AM on October 20, 2006


...she concludes her section on DDT in Silent Spring not by urging a total ban, but with "Practical advice should be 'Spray as little as you possibly can' rather than 'Spray to the limit of yourSpray to the limit of your capacity.'"
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rachel_Carson#Silent_Spring_and_the_DDT_ban
posted by NortonDC at 11:19 AM on October 20, 2006


What I don't understand is why we had leaded gas for sooooo long. It's not as if the dangers of lead were unknown. Indeed, quite the opposite: we've known damn well for ages that lead and humans are a very bad mix. Atomizing it into our respiratory systems has to be about as stupid as stupid gets.
posted by five fresh fish at 12:47 PM on October 20, 2006


FFF, Here's how it works:

(a) Company discovers that a product can make them a lot of money;

(b) Company discovers that the product can also cause a lot of harm;

(c) Company releases product anyway, because companies are ultimately run by people, and the people who run companies are (typically) the kind of people for whom profits matter more than spending time with their families -- so causing harm to human beings that they don't even know is even less important to them;

(d) Company engages in public relations campaigns to market product, and cover up, downplay or ignore the dangers, so as to ensure the highest profit in the shortest time;

(e) People hear about the product, use the product, and (since they don't suffer immediate harmful effects, such as loss of a limb or a heart attack) assume that it's safe to use; besides, if it weren't, "I'm sure they wouldn't be allowed to sell it";

(f) Even after the dangers are revealed, the long-term consequences don't leave much of an impression on people, because if it were really that bad, "I'm sure they would have done something about it by now."

Lather, rinse, repeat.
posted by davejay at 1:40 PM on October 20, 2006 [1 favorite]


mbrubeck, thanks.

And is there any real way to know "how many lives saved by refrigeration" is greater than "how many lives lost to CFC effects?" I get that we didn't know what CFCs could do...but that argument seems to imply that even if we did, we should have gone forward with using them. As opposed to trying for a less harmful technology (at the cost of taking longer to get good refrigeration, I suppose).

Of course at least some of the deaths in the pre-refrigeration era were also due to ignorance about proper food handling and lack of regulation of food processing. Even today we still have to teach people not to put cooked meat on a plate that's had raw meat on it, etc. So conceivably our greater understanding of how bacteria multiply could have helped us cut down on food poisoning deaths even before refrigeration.
posted by emjaybee at 2:19 PM on October 20, 2006


NASCAR racecars actually continue to burn leaded gasoline, although they will be switching to unleaded gasoline next season.

Seriously though, when you're driving a car that still uses 1950's technology (carburetors and push-rod engines) why not use 1950's era gasoline too?
posted by corranhorn at 2:49 PM on October 20, 2006


why not use 1950's era gasoline too?

Because it's hurting us?
posted by five fresh fish at 5:01 PM on October 20, 2006


NASCAR's use of leaded gas is hurting you?
posted by smackfu at 7:38 AM on October 21, 2006


You don't think emitting lead into our atmosphere is a mistake?
posted by five fresh fish at 8:59 AM on October 21, 2006


Sorry, FFF, the sarcasm of that last part was lost in typing... I think we're both on the same page.
posted by corranhorn at 8:21 PM on October 21, 2006


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