At the Door of the Loony Gas Building


by Deborah Blum

The only way to start this story is by opening a door – the door leading into the Loony Gas building.

The workers at the Standard Oil Refinery in New Jersey, gave the building that name, waving goodbye to their colleagues when they entered the shadowed opening, promising to have undertakers waiting when they came out. The building was only one year old, that fall of 1924, but it had earned the nickname.

It looked harmless enough from the outside, the usual style of factory buildings on the New Jersey site, the familiar rectangle of neat red brick with narrow windows set in stone. Inside, the first impression was also of routine, noise and heat, the hiss and clank of the pipes, the grumble and clatter of the retorts.  And then 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 the car engines. Even GM’s best cars,  its elegant Cadillacs, banged so loudly under the hood that customers worried that the engines were breaking apart. The noise was a natural byproduct of the engine’s design in which gasoline tended to mix with air, heat, spontaneously ignite and explode, sometimes loudly enough to startle a driver into losing control.*

Tetraethyl lead – or TEL as the industrial shorthand referred to it – solved that problem. As we know now – or, more accurately, have known for decades now – it caused many more.  But what most people don’t know – and what I didn’t learn until I started researching the toxicology of the early 20th century – is that scientists warned of, and tried to prevent, those lead-based problems back in the 1920s.   Their evidence was, in fact, so solid that that some cities, like New York, attempted to block its use. They were overruled by a federal government that preferred to ally itself with major corporations. A cautionary tale, you might say,  although not a lesson we’ve followed with any notable consistency.

Tetraethyl lead was nothing new back then; it was actually a 19th century discovery from European laboratories. But that innovative GM engineer, one Thomas Midgley, Jr., put it to a new use. (Midgley would later become notorious among environmentalists for his contribution not only to leaded gasoline but to the worldwide use of chlorofluorocarbons).

Midgley was working under the direction of GM research head Charles Kettering when he made his key discovery regarding those knocking engines:  tetraethyl lead (a chemical blending of lead, carbon and hydrogen) bonded with the fuel,  enveloping it into a happily non-explosive material.

Both the automobile and the oil industry took instantly to Midgley’s anti-knock solution, pouring money into production facilities, advertising its wonders.  One of the earliest factories to make the additive was the Standard Oil facility in Bayway, New Jersey. And it was there, in the loony gas building,  that the warning signs became obvious.

In the twelve months since the company had begun making the anti-knock ingredient, plant laborers’ fear of the place had steadily increased. The men who worked in the TEL building, in the clanking heat and drifting vapors, had become increasingly odd – moody, short-tempered, unable to sleep. Some of the workers started getting lost on the familiar plant grounds, had trouble even remembering their friends. And then, in October of 1924, laborers from that same building started collapsing, going into convulsions, babbling deliriously. By the end of September, 32 of the 49 TEL workers were in the hospital and five of them died.

Standard Oil issued a coolly dismissive  response: “These men probably went insane because they worked too hard,” the building manager told The New York Times. Those who didn’t survive had merely worked themselves to death, he continued, due to enthusiasm for the job.

Other than that, the company didn’t really see a problem at all.

The Standard Oil explanation failed to impress the state of New Jersey. It ordered the plant closed. The local district attorney wasn’t impressed either. He called the chief medical examiner from New York City, Charles Norris, and asked if his innovative chemistry division could do some research into the compound.

Norris was happy to do so. He hadn’t liked Standard Oil’s position either.  He decided, in fact, to issue his own statement, contradicting the industry’s perspective on TEL in explicit terms: “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 was well known, as Norris emphasized, for its tendency to damage the nervous system. And lead-laced vapors, like those emitted in TEL manufacturing, absorbed through the skin and were inhaled directly into the lungs.

It turned out, in fact, that months before the New Jersey workers died, several of the supervisors at the loony gas building had recommended that the production be shut down. They’d become alarmed themselves by the way the increasingly bizarre behavior of the workers and by the signs of obvious illness.

Standard Oil did not back down.  In answer to this new round of criticisms, the company organized a press conference at its Manhattan offices (not in New Jersey, of course), featuring the developer of tetraethyl lead himself. Midgley assured reporters that handled properly there was nothing dangerous about his prized 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.”

Like Standard Oil executives, he blamed the workers, both at Dupont and at the New Jersey plant, for failing to protect themselves properly. 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 perhaps the employees hadn’t realized that working with TEL was “man’s work”, with all the risks implied.

He was right, of course, that the loony gas workers didn’t know what the risks were. But neither – even at that moment – did he.

*The description of the anti-knock problem was updated in response to a very smart comment which pointed out that I had described it as a product of incomplete combustion when the explosions actually tended to occur pre-combustion as pockets of air and gas circulating in the engine ignite. For some excellent and more technical descriptions, do check the comment section.

Of Dead Bodies and Dirty Streets

In the fall of 1924, five bodies from New Jersey were delivered to the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office. You might not expect that to cause the chief medical examiner to worry about the dirt blowing in city streets. But it did.

To understand why you need to know the story of those five dead men, or at least the story of their exposure to a then mysterious industrial poison.

The five men worked at the Standard Oil Refinery in Bayway, New Jersey. All of them spent their days in what plant employees nicknamed “the loony gas building”, a tidy brick structure where workers seemed to sicken as they handled a new gasoline additive. The additive’s technical name was tetraethyl lead or, in industrial shorthand, TEL.  It was developed by researchers at General Motors as an anti-knock formula.

But, as I wrote in a previous post, men working at the plant quickly gave it the “loony gas” tag because anyone who spent much time inside showed signs of mental deterioration, from stumbling memory loss to sudden twitchy bursts of rage.  In October of 1924, workers in the TEL building began collapsing, going into convulsions, babbling deliriously. By the end of September, 32 of the 49 TEL workers were in the hospital; five of them died.

The problem, at that point, was that no one knew exactly why. Oh, they knew – or should have known – that tetraethyl lead was dangerous. As Charles Norris, chief medical examiner for New York City pointed out, the compound had been banned in Europe for years due to its toxic nature. But while U.S. corporations hurried TEL into production in the 1920s, they did not hurry to understand its medical or environmental effects.

Thomas Midgley, Jr. in the Laboratory:

Two years earlier, the U.S. Public Health Service had asked Thomas Midgley, Jr. – the developer of the leaded gasoline process –   all research into the health consequences of tetraethyl lead (TEL).

Midgley, a scientist at General Motors,  replied then that no such research existed. Two years later, he could gave the same answer. Although GM and Standard Oil had formed a joint company to manufacture leaded gasoline – the Ethyl Gasoline Corporation – its research had focused solely on improving the TEL formulas. The companies preferred to avoid the lead issue. They’d deliberately left the word out of their new company name to avoid its negative image.

In response to the worker health crisis at the Bayway plant, Standard Oil suggested that the problem might simply be overwork.  Unimpressed, the state of New Jersey ordered a halt to TEL production. And then the compound was so poorly understood,  state health officials asked the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office  to find out what had happened.

In 1924, New York had the best forensic toxicology department in the country; in fact, it had one of the few such programs period. The chief chemist was a dark, cigar-smoking, perfectionist named Alexander Gettler, a famously dogged researcher who would sit up late at night designing both experiments and apparatus as needed.

It took Gettler three obsessively focused weeks to figure out how much tetraethyl lead the Standard Oil workers had absorbed before they became ill, or crazy, or dead. “This is one of the most difficult of many difficult investigations of the kind which have been carried on at this laboratory,”  Norris said, when releasing the results. “This was the first work of its kind, as far as I know. Dr. Gettler had not only to do the work but to invent a considerable part of the method of doing it.”

Working with the first four bodies, then checking his results against the body of the last worker killed, who had died screaming in a straitjacket, Gettler discovered that TEL and its lead byproducts formed a recognizable distribution, concentrated in the lungs, the brain, and the bones. The highest levels were in the lungs suggesting that most of the poison had been inhaled; later tests showed that the types of masks used by  Standard Oil did not filter out the lead in TEL vapors.

Rubber gloves did protect the hands but if TEL splattered and made any direct with skin, it absorbed alarmingly quickly. The result was intense poisoning with lead, a potent neurotoxin. The loony gas symptoms were, in fact, classic heavy lead toxicity.

After Norris released his office’s report on tetraethyl lead, New York City banned its sale, and the sale of “any preparation containing lead or other deleterious substances” as an additive to gasoline. So did New Jersey. So did the city of Philadelphia.

Afraid that the trend would accelerate, that they would be forced to find another anti-knock compound, as well as losing considerable money, the manufacturing companies demanded that the federal government take over the investigation and develop its own regulations.

The manufacturers agreed to suspend TEL production and distribution until a federal investigation was completed. In May 1925, the U.S. Surgeon General called a national tetraethyl lead conference, to be followed by the formation of an investigative task force to study the problem. That same year, Midgley published his first health analysis of TEL, which acknowledged just a minor health risk: “compared with other chemical industries it is neither grave nor inescapable.”

It was obvious in advance that the federal task force was going to reach that same conclusion. The panel only included selected industry scientists like Midgely. It had no place for Alexander Gettler or Charles Norris or, in fact, anyone from any city where sales of the gas had been banned, or any agency involved in the producing that first critical analysis of tetraethyl lead.

In January 1926, the public health service released its report which concluded that  there was “no danger” posed by adding the compound to gasoline…”no reason to prohibit the sale of leaded gasoline” as long as workers were well protected during the manufacturing process.

The task force focused on the risks associated with every day exposure by drivers, automobile attendants, gas station operators, and found that it was minimal. It was true that lead had turned up in dusty corners of garages and that all the drivers tested showed trace amounts of lead in their blood. But a low level of lead could be tolerated, the scientists concluded. After all,  none of the test subjects showed the extreme behaviors and breakdowns associated with places like the looney gas building. And the worker problem could be handled with some protective gear.

There were critics, even then, insisting that this was a biased panel, too deliberately underestimating the risks, too willing to introduce lead into the environment. There was one cautionary note, though.  The federal panel warned that exposure levels would probably rise as more people took to the roads.  Perhaps, at a later point, the scientists suggested, the research should be taken up again. It was always possible that leaded gasoline might “constitute a menace to the general public after prolonged use or other conditions not foreseen at this time.”

But, of course, that would be another generation’s problem. In 1926, citing evidence from the TEL report, the federal government revoked all bans on production and sale of leaded gasoline. The reaction of industry was jubilant; one Standard Oil spokesman likened the compound to a “gift of God,” so great was its potential to improve automobile performance.

In New York City,  at least,  Charles Norris decided to prepare for the health and environmental problems to come. He suggested that the department scientists do a base-line measurement of lead levels in the dirt and debris blowing across city streets. People died, he pointed out to his staff; and everyone knew that heavy metals like lead tended to accumulate. The resulting comparison of street dirt in 1924 and 1934 found a 50 percent increase in lead levels – a warning, an indicator of damage to come, if anyone had been paying attention.

It was some fifty years later – in 1986 – that the United States formally banned lead as a gasoline additive. By that time, according to some estimates, so much lead had been deposited into soils, streets, building surfaces, that an estimated 68 million children would register toxic levels of lead absorption and some 5,000 American adults would die annually of lead-induced heart disease. As lead affects cognitive function, some neuroscientists also suggested that chronic lead exposure resulted in a measurable drop in  IQ scores during the leaded gas era.

Or, if you prefer, our long – and preventable –  loony gas era.

These blog series are on the early history of leaded gasoline. I discovered this while researching The Poisoner’s Handbook and I’ve always considered it a fascinating and troubling part of our forgotten chemical history.

Piece originally published at PLOS Blogs |

About the Author:

Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-prize winning science writer and a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin.