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Who Got Lead Out of Gasoline?

Cars and vehicles were quickly advancing in the fifties. Engines were designed to be bigger and faster and utilized more octane. At the time, scientists learned that adding lead to fuel improved the engine’s performance. For almost three decades, consumers used leaded gasoline, not knowing how much exposure would impact their health. Fortunately, another scientist figured out the adverse effects of lead gasoline. But who is this unsung hero? 

Clair Patterson, a scientist who also worked on the “Manhattan Project,” discovered that lead emitted from cars caused health problems. He spent 20 years lobbying to take out the lead from gasoline products.

Discovering the Dangers in Lead Gasoline

Geochemist Clair Patterson started his career when assigned to a secret nuclear production facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He worked on the Manhattan Project, a top-secret government operation to develop the atomic bomb. Most of the employees who worked on the project didn’t understand their tasks.

Patterson, who was just in his mid-twenties, helped the project with his expertise in handling the mass spectrometer. The machine is sensitive enough to tell the difference between atoms and their unique number of neutrons. With Patterson’s help, the government created the atomic bombs that destroyed Japan. (Source: Fantastic Facts)

Patterson left the project and earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. His mastery of the mass spectrometer came into play when he and his mentor, Dr. Brown, uncovered the exact age of the earth. Part of Patterson’s task is to measure the precise amounts of various isotopes of uranium and lead.

In 1955, Patterson announced his findings at a conference and continued writing his paper about his studies. However, he had a challenge. He found lead everywhere due to his refined skills in detecting it. He had to know the source of contamination so he could eliminate it.

In the following years, Patterson and M. Tatsumoto of the US Geological Survey concluded that tetraethyl lead, a famous additive in automobile gasoline, is contaminating the environment. The doctor then wrote his paper reporting his findings and calling the action for those in positions within public health to take action. His article noted that tetraethyl lead could be found almost everywhere, in insecticides, water service pipes, kitchenware, and even in paint covering walls of houses. (Source: Mental Floss)

Clair Patterson’s Fight Against Major Oil Companies 

When Patterson made his findings public, he was scrutinized by big oil companies. With the help of Dr. Kehoe, they tried to make Patterson seem like a lunatic who didn’t know what he was saying.

Kehoe was another scientist who studied lead and knew the negative implications. However, he spent his career whitewashing his findings since gasoline corporations funded his studies. Patterson got his break in 1976 when the US Environmental Protection Agency mandated a reduction in lead levels in gasoline. (Source: Openmind BBVA)

Patterson’s data was recognized and accepted in the years that followed. This led to removing leaded gas in gas stations in the country. Patterson’s work stemmed from his curiosity to fully understand the earth’s age. Following his work, researchers also found out that lead emitted by cars in the forties up to the seventies may strongly correlate to crime rates twenty years after. They called this the lead-crime hypothesis. The hypothesis saw that populations raised in the decades were lead content in gas, bred individuals with higher probabilities of being criminals due to their diminished mental state. (Source: Fantastic Facts)

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