Today, every car sold on the market that has a petrol engine uses unleaded fuel. That wasn’t always the case – leaded fuel was available for about 50 years and for a purpose.
Refined fuel, namely petrol, has a habit of auto-igniting, i.e the ability to detonate on it’s own without a spark and this meant that cars up to the 1920s could run roughly as the fuel ignited at the wrong point of the otto cycle. As fuels were getting to an ever higher quality and cars were growing in popularity, auto-ignition became a major issue.
The problem that concerned the industry was that the air/fuel mixture sometimes didn’t ignite at the right time when the spark plug was triggered and thus the detonation and subsequent power stroke were affected. The outward symptom was a metallic thud, known as “knocking’ or “pinging” and the inward symptom was an increase in pressure in the cylinder which could cause an engine failure.
Ethanol was the initial additive used to help with an improved octane rating for the fuel and to cope with the ever higher compression used by the engines. As ethanol was a competing product to the oil producers, they started to add in tetraethyl lead (TEL) to their fuels instead. There appears to be a tidy arrangement between the oil companies and the patent holders of TEL for the use as an additive.
Those patent holders were in fact General Motors (the use patent) and the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (the manufacturing patent), with GM engineers finding that TEL would improve the engine’s performance. In 1924, both parties formed a company called the Ethyl Gasoline Company with the intention of manufacturing the additive. GM quietly sold their stake in this company during the early 1960s and it is thought they did this to prevent losses from their liabilities from the health impacts of the product.
Standard Oil of New Jersey was an owner of Universal Oil Products, who developed the refining techniques for crude oil and as such licenced a method to produce high quality petrol – now we can see the relationship of when and how lead was added to this fuel.
It was known long before day one that this additive was a human health disaster waiting to happen. In the 1920s, Standard Oil had contracted DuPont to oversee the manufacturing at the Ethyl Gasoline Company. Soon after production started, 17 workers died from over exposure to the mixture. That didn’t stop the partners, with large profits to be made, it made its way into the primary fuel for personal transportation. The deaths prompted an enquiry that was expected to be thorough – in fact it lasted just one day with General Motors telling the Government that there was no alternative. The enquiry decreed that further research should be done – which it was, and funded by the lead industry. Subsequently, the Government released a report to say that it was safe!
Lead is a highly toxic metal that accumulates in the body. The dispersement of lead through exhaust gases meant that anyone living in an urban area would be subjected to ever larger doses of the poison. It can have serious consequences for brain development causing major learning and IQ issues in children.
It took until 1973 for the true research into health related issues to become a foundation for the US EPA (Environment Protection Agency) to demand a reduction in the amount of lead added to fuels. This reduction was phased and it still took another 20 years for lead to be completely banned from fuel. The European Community finally banned leaded fuel in 2000 and the industry concentrated in Third World markets to shore up their profits. Today only a handful of poor countries still use lead in their fuel – and they are the countries in most need of good health to support good education.
As stated earlier, lead accumulates in whatever absorbs it – and this includes animals and even soils near major roadways. Lead can find its way back into humans through crops and other food sources.
The bigger issue is that the fuels we still use are crammed with additives and chemicals to perform certain functions, whether it be to prevent engine knocking or to prevent the build up of metal salts or carbon deposits. Every one is harmful in some way to humans and with greater awareness comes greater scrutiny by Governments.
It still doesn’t stop the Governments from turning a blind eye when researchers highlight the dangers of their policies, especially when tax and excise revenues are the focus.