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5: Tetraethyllead - World Usage

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    The success of Ethyl gasoline in the 1930s in the U.S. involved several factors. It was heavily advertised and it gave an obvious improvement in engine knocking. But it was also a way for refiners to deny market access to anyone in the oil business who did not comply with Standard Oil’s version of “business ethics.” Ethyl lost an anti-trust lawsuit in 1940, but not before it had cornered 90 percent of US gasoline market. Ethyl also pursued sales in Europe with the help of letters from the Surgeon General explaining that its studies had found TEL to be perfectly safe.


    At its peak in the 1970s, tetraethyl lead was used in about 80 to 90 percent of all gasoline worldwide.

    By 1970, GM indicated it planned to meet new clean air regulations by installing a catalytic converter in the engine exhaust stream. One of the necessities of this plan was that lead would have to be removed from the gasoline - not because of its toxic effects on the human population but because lead compounds in the hot exhaust would "poison" and render ineffective the catalysts in the converter.

    Ethyl’s worldwide sales proved to be a lifeline when US markets started to shrink in as the catalytic converter was adopted across the product line 1976. By 1979 Ethyl's overall international sales of TEL exceeded domestic sales. The health related phaseout of leaded gasoline in Europe in the 1990s meant that Ethyl sales would be increasingly confined to Third World markets.


    Today, over 90% of all gasoline sold in Africa and the Middle East is still leaded, while over 30% of Asian and Latin American gasoline is also leaded.

    Case Discussion

    The Questions: How did lead compounds, whose extreme toxicity were known for more than a century before they were introduced into gasoline, become an accepted and everyday component of the fuels we use - and of the air we breathe and the ground upon which we walk?

    As an automotive businessman or scientist like Charles Kettering or Thomas Midgley, as a workplace environmentalist like Alice Franklin or as the President oft DuPont and based on the information known at the time, can you come to a different conclusion as to the use of tetraethyllead?

    Begin with current information on:

    1. Lead compound toxicity
    2. The Environmental Protection Agencies' (EPA) history of lead
    3. The Material Safety Data Shee t for TEL
    4. Measuring toxicity. (The LD50 of TEL is 12.3 mg/kg of body weight as determined in test animals. This means that one-half of the animals will die from the immediate effect of this level of TEL consumption. For a 160 pound human this indicates 1g would cause death if ingested. LD50 is a measure of acute toxicity and in no way indicates the level of lead that might cause health effects through chronic exposure.)

    Then look back more than 75 years and review Corporate/Government Decisions, 1920-1950 , Pollution History/Issues , the story of Alice Hamilton and the ancient history of lead toxicity.

    c. Form into three groups: Hamilton, Kettering and DuPont. Make a list of the advantages and disadvantages to YOU or your employer or the group you represent of having tetraethyllead in the gasoline. Add to those in the boxes:

      Advantages Disadvantages
    Kettering 1. needed to prevent knocking 1. expensive
    Franklin   1. people have been killed
    DuPont 1. we have monopoly of fuel additives, make money 2. must be careful in manufacture

    Answer these questions:

    1. Is it appropriate to assess the benefits of TEL use against the potential risks?
      • If so, can these participants alone solve the problem of TEL as a fuel additive based on such an analysis?
    2. If not what other resources are necessary to come to an acceptable solution?
    3. What solution do you suggest?
    4. Was the information available in , let's say, 1950, sufficient to remove lead from the gasoline or was it necessary to wait for later scientific proof of harm done vs. benefit gained?

    This page titled 5: Tetraethyllead - World Usage is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by ChemCases.

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