Get the Lead Out!

Uncategorized Posted Feb 24, 2015 by chenpr

Clair Patterson (1922 – 1995) was a geochemist best known for being the first person to accurately calculate the age of the earth—4.55 billion years—by measuring the lead isotopic data from a meteorite. While doing his research on the age of the earth, Dr. Patterson noticed that many of his experiments were being contaminated by excess lead that he couldn’t account for. He later discovered this was due to the widespread use of lead for commercial purposes. From there Dr. Patterson committed himself to an arduous research and PR campaign to prove the harmful effects of lead and help push legislation to put an end to its large scale use in gasoline, paint and other consumer products.


In the 1920s, car ownership was becoming more and more common in America. One of the most pervasive problems with these cars was a malfunction known as “engine knock,” named for the sound made when one of the pistons fires at the wrong point in its movement cycle. Thomas Midgley, a scientist hired by GM to solve the problem, came up with a cost-effective solution that ended up making GM a lot of money. However, Midgley’s solution involved putting trace amounts of the toxic chemical tetraethyl lead in the gasoline, thereby polluting the environment.

Lead, the main component of tetraethyl lead, is a neurotoxin. When it enters the body, the body reacts to it as if it is iron, which is a very important mineral for our health. The body happily takes lead in and starts to put it to task doing the jobs iron should be doing, which is a little like trying to turn a full grown grizzly bear into a house pet; it doesn’t end well.

So when Clair Patterson noticed all the lead contamination in his experiments to measure the age of the earth, he thought something might be wrong. He began to study lead levels in ice core samples and found that the amount of lead in the environment was 80 times what it was before the 1920s—when tetraethyl lead began being used in gasoline. Thus began his mission of making the public and legislators aware of the massive danger the wide spread industrial and commercial use of lead posed.


Armed with painstakingly thorough scientific research and hard data, Dr. Patterson tried to show people just how dangerous the problem was. But despite his efforts, he was met with an overwhelming combination of indifference and hostility. The Ethyle Corporation, a subsidiary of GM and what is now known as ExxonMobil, first tried to buy Patterson’s silence. When that didn’t work, they started a massive lobbying, propaganda and PR campaign, paying scientists to refute Patterson’s evidence in order to destroy his credibility and persuade the public that leaded gasoline was safe. Patterson lost nearly all his scientific funding and almost lost his job as a professor at the California Institute of Technology because the board of trusties had ties to the Ethyl Corporation. On top of that, much of the scientific community started to think he was an overzealous fear monger.


Things started to look a little brighter for Dr. Patterson in 1970, when congress passed the Clean Air Act. The Clean Air Act had nothing in it that prevented people from using leaded gasoline, but it did require that car companies start building cars with catalytic converters. As it turns out, catalytic converters are incompatible with leaded gasoline, so in a short amount of time the Ethyle Corporation began to lose money. By 1973 the Environmental Protection Agency announced a program to reduce the use of leaded gasoline, but it was not until 1986 that lead gasoline was removed from the market in the United States.

Patterson’s efforts can be viewed as both a success and a failure—depending how you look at it—because while the government eventually did decide to enact laws that led to the removal of lead from gasoline, it did so only incidentally. No serious action was taken until the money stopped flowing, long after social and scientific consensus had been reached. But, at the same time, without Dr. Patterson’s work maybe it would have taken even longer for our leaders to address the environmental and health issues of industrial and consumer lead use.

This story demonstrates that good ideas—even ones with tremendous obstacles—will eventually triumph as long as there are people willing to fight for them. Even though Clair Patterson didn’t triumph over the reckless greed of big business, he will always be remembered as a staunch advocate of good ideas and a man of great integrity.