On the frosty morning of Dec. 9, 1921, in Dayton, Ohio, researchers at a General Motors lab poured a new fuel blend into one of their test engines. Immediately, the engine began running more quietly and putting out more power.
The new fuel was tetraethyl lead. With vast profits in sight—and very few public health regulations at the time—General Motors Co. rushed gasoline diluted with tetraethyl lead to market despite the known health risks of lead. They named it “Ethyl” gas.
It has been 100 years since that pivotal day in the development of leaded gasoline. As a historian of media and the environment, I see this anniversary as a time to reflect on the role of public health advocates and environmental journalists in preventing profit-driven tragedy.
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