The Public Health Service’s decision to allow tetraethyl lead back on the market in January of 1926 after Kettering and others had removed it for a time, was based on a physical examination of service station workers pumping leaded gasoline that was conducted in October of 1925. Most of the men appeared healthy, but evidence of blood lead contamination in widespread “stippling” of blood cells was not understood as a warning sign at the time, and no blood lead tests were then available.
The final committee report on leaded gasoline found “no good reason” for continuing its prohibition, but the committee strongly recommend further independent study. The recommendation was ignored, and meanwhile, the Ethyl Corp. claimed that the committee had given Ethyl a “clean bill of health.”
Research on the health impacts of lead that took place between the 1930s and the 1960s was funded by, and heavily biased toward, the industry. The research was aimed at proving that high levels of lead in the average American’s body were both normal and harmless. Most of the research was carried out at the Kettering Laboratory at the University of Cincinnati by scientists with strong industry connections. This research was criticized as deliberately deceptive in the 1960s and 1970s as the health impacts of leaded gasoline were reconsidered.[i] For example, the blood lead levels of people who lived in nonindustrial nations, far from auto exhaust and lead paint, were reported inaccurately as being similar to those who lived in the U.S.
Today's Environmental Protection Agency
Automotive emission standards and fuel regulations have taken many complex turns since the Clean Air Act of 1970 first mandated the reduction of airborne pollutants.
- [i] William Graebner, "Hegemony through Science: Information Engineering and Lead Toxicology, 1925 - 1965," in David Rosner and Gerald Markowitz, eds., Dying For Work: Workers Safety and Health in 20th Century America, (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1989), p.140.