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This Day in Labor History: October 26, 1924

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On October 26, 1924, the first of five workers died in less than a week at Standard Oil’s Bayway TEL works from lead exposure in making leaded gasoline.

Lead has been part of human economic activity going back thousands of years. Lead in paint was used by societies across the globe. With the rise of the Industrial Revolution, lead had all sorts of new purposes. But lead always took a high toll on the workers who used it. That was certainly true in past societies and many people did die horrible deaths from lead poisoning. But with the rise of industrialization, a process that routinely and legally sacrificed workers on the altar of progress, the deaths became more horrifying and more common.

One of the new uses for lead was in gasoline. Lead consumption in the U.S. doubled between 1919 and 1929 due to the the rise of leaded gasoline and cars more generally. Lead was used in rubber tires until nearly 2000. It is in car batteries too. By 1993, batteries made up 83 percent of all lead used in the U.S. But this heavy use of lead was not uncontested. For in 1924, workers in the leaded gasoline industry started dying of lead poisoning.

On October 23, 1924, Ernest Oelgert started telling his coworkers that people were following him. The next day, he ran through the lead factory where he worked, screaming that three men were chasing him. Someone caught him and he was taken to the hospital. Two days later, he died. By the following Thursday, four more workers who labored with Oelgert had also died. Walter Dymock threw himself out a window. William McSweeny went insane and died a couple days later. William Kresge and Herbert Fuson soon followed. All had died from breathing in huge quantities of lead. These men all worked mixing tetraethyl lead for Standard Oil’s Bayway plant in Elizabeth, New Jersey. They were paid for their dangerous work. They made 85 cents an hour, whereas other workers at the plant made 65 cents an hour. This is the equivalent of about $12.50 an hour today, so not exactly a great wage for the time. Probably eight workers had already died before this wave of deaths.

None of this was necessary. Leaded gasoline was created by General Motors chemist Thomas Midgley as a solution to the “knocking” of engines running on gasoline, which then freed up manufactures to make more powerful engines. The real reason for this knock, which did have extremely annoying backfiring tendencies, was probably the low-quality of crude oil used in the rush to fill the gasoline demand as automobiles skyrocketed. The addition of tetraethyl lead burned the gasoline without knocking. GM contracted with DuPont to build a tetraethyl lead plant, which it did in Wilmington, Delaware, and the a new market was created. Initially, DuPont made the fluid that Standard Oil was create into a marketable product, but Standard quickly hired chemists who could do the whole process more cheaply and DuPont had a competitor.

Tetraethyl lead is far more poisonous for workers than the lead that would kill a painter, which slowly accreted in the body. But tetraethyl lead is fat soluble. This is not good. Moreover, those in control already knew this. During World War I, the Army had tested it for use as a nerve gas. It was less effective than mustard gas, but the Chemical Warfare Service discovered that five teaspoons of it was a fatal dose. So DuPont and Standard Oil and the GM knew they were killing workers. And they didn’t care.

With real safety precautions, working with tetraethyl lead is dangerous for workers. But there was such a demand to get this product to market that few if any safety precautions were taken. GM created a medical committee after a couple workers died at a Dayton plant and one died at the DuPont factory in Wilmington. But this was just about study and to control for the real downside for the capitalist: bad publicity. The actual safety standards were nonexistent. Workers carried around the tetraethyl lead in open buckets. Eventually, leaded gasoline production facilities were built, but at first, this process was just shoved in alongside any other chemical production in existing plants.

Workers realized pretty quickly that something was up. The New Jersey plant where the workers died that frame this post referred to it as “the loony gas building,” while workers in the Wilmington facility called it “The House of Butterflies” to represent the images of butterflies chasing workers that many felt as the lead ate away their brains. By August 1924, the GM study group did issue some recommendations, such as limiting dust and installing ventilation. These went back to the types of recommendations the pioneering industrial safety pioneer Alice Hamilton had been recommending for years for lead paint workers. They weren’t enough for dealing with tetraethyl lead but at least they were a first step. There’s not really enough time between this report and the death of the New Jersey workers to evaluate whether GM and Standard were going to implement these recommendations without a rash of dead workers.

What we can say is that the companies did receive bad publicity in the aftermath and then did implement those moderate reforms. But they were far more interested in mollifying the public than protecting workers, who were there to be killed as far as the companies were concerned. When the first newspaper reports of the dead workers came out, Standard stated publicly that “the men probably went insane because they worked too hard.” Oh. Then the company insisted that gas masks and protective clothing was available but the workers refused to use it. This was probably not true at all. Then the papers discovered that the companies knew about previous deaths. They went to the DuPont plant. Workers told them that nine had died in the previous two years. But because DuPont ran Wilmington as a company town, no word about this got out of the hospitals. The Bureau of Mines issued a report about the companies fixing this problem, demonstrating the complicity of the federal government, but further reports over the next few years publicized more and more workers dying.

New York went so far as to ban leaded gasoline. Finally, at a national conference on the issue in Washington, the nation had a chance to deal with this. A different path, one without lead, was possible. Alice Hamilton and others urged action and also noted the broader public health hazards of leaded gasoline. Instead, the Coolidge administration intervened to help the lead, auto, and chemical industries by announcing the Surgeon General would study the issue and meanwhile, full speed ahead on production. There was never any serious study from the government and one of the worst public health issues over the twentieth century, both for workers and the general public, was allowed to continue for over a half-century.

This post borrowed from Christian Warren’s Brush with Death: A Social History of Lead Poisoning, published in 1993 by Johns Hopkins University Press.

This is the 334th post in the this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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