Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Re: Cars

No, not the Gary Numan song. I started out today to write a think-piece about cars, and specifically about a certain fondly-remembered two-tone pink 1956 DeSoto Fireflite.

My writing process sometimes cross-pollinates in strange ways, though. I was out at the range Sunday afternoon, trying out a new load, when a trick of the late afternoon sunlight made it apparent how much smoke each shot generated. Some of it was powder smoke; most of it was lubricant smoke; but given that I was shooting plain-base cast-lead bullets, a tiny but disturbing amount of it was unquestionably vaporized lead.

Nasty stuff, lead. Highly toxic. Very persistent. Gifted with a disturbing affinity for the myelin sheaths of vertebrate neurons. We call it "lead poisoning," but the symptoms of lead-related neurotoxicity are uglier than mere poisoning. Even at very low levels, lead in the bloodstream has a proven causal link to low intelligence, anti-social behavior, and a tendancy to commit violence. At higher levels it causes impaired vision, coordination and balance problems, speech impairment and memory loss, and ultimately, paranoia, violent insanity, and death.

Short of intravenous injection, the fastest and most effective way to get a substance into your bloodstream is by vaporizing and inhaling it. Which, if you're wondering where I'm going with this, is why I started out thinking about a 1956 DeSoto Fireflite, and ended up thinking about the fuel that 341-cubic-inch hemi V-8 ran on: leaded gasoline.

This is a story that needs to be told, and told again, because anyone born after 1970 doesn't know it and anyone older has probably forgotten it. Fortunately, thanks to the Internet, it's a lot easier to tell the story these days. When I first wrote an article about this subject, 15-plus years ago, authoritative sources were hard to find.

Today, all I need to do is go to Google, type in tetraethyl, and voila! Sources out the wazoo! So many sources, in fact, that I don't really need to tell this story after all; I just need to point you to other sites that have already told the tale.

In highly condensed form, then, it goes like this. The concept of "peak oil" is nothing new. In the 1920s, the finest minds in the scientific community were absolutely certain we were very shortly going to run out of recoverable crude oil, by 1950 at the latest. Accordingly a great deal effort was put into the search for alternative automotive fuels, most notably those based on alcohol. Henry Ford in particular put a lot of time and money into agricultural projects intended to produce biologically-derived alternative fuels. (He also invested in a project to turn his factory's considerable amounts of wood waste into a safe and easily handled heating and cooking fuel, which is something to consider the next time you light up those Kingsford briquets.)

At the same time, General Motors was having an engineering problem; their car and truck engines just plain didn't run well on ordinary gasoline. They were prone to preignition — "knock," in layman's terms — and while the problem could be (and eventually was) solved by improved engineering or better-quality fuels, in the 1920s they opted for a cheaper solution: specifically, they sought some magic ingredient that could be added to ordinary gasoline to boost its octane rating. This, it was hoped, would both mitigate GM's engine design flaws and stretch the (believed to be) dwindling supplies of gasoline, as it would allow lower grades of fuel to be used in cars and trucks.

The answer to GM's problem wasn't actually a mystery. It was already well-known that you could increase the octane rating of gasoline either by improving the refining process, as Sunoco was already doing, or by using non-toxic additives such as alcohol or iron carbonyl. However, in the final analysis GM, working with Standard Oil, settled on adding tetraethyl lead (TEL) to gasoline, for two very important reasons:

1. It was slightly cheaper than alcohol, and

2. Unlike iron carbonyl, GM owned the patent on TEL.

The redefinition of regular gasoline as being low-grade gasoline plus "Ethyl," (a much less frightening term than tetraethyl lead and trademarkable, to boot), was not without its problems. The health hazards of lead exposure had been known for millennia, and once leaded gasoline went into volume production, Standard Oil refinery workers began going insane and dying in disturbing numbers. In 1925 the Surgeon General banned the manufacture and sale of leaded gasoline in the U.S. while a blue-ribbon panel of experts was convened to investigate the issue, but in 1926 this panel — which consisted of a bevy of industry experts and just one M.D. — returned a report declaring there was no reason to continue the ban, and sales of leaded gasoline resumed. Whereupon the Ethyl Corporation, a wholly owned subsidiary of GM that owned the patent, and the DuPont Corporation, which actually manufactured TEL, and Standard Oil, which blended, distributed, and sold the resulting leaded gasoline, all became very, very, very rich.

But sad to say, the story does not end on this happy note. As any shooter knows, vaporized lead and lead oxides have a tendency to condense very quickly, which is what makes gun barrels such a chore to clean after you've been shooting cast bullets, and the same thing happens inside an automotive engine, with potentially catastrophic results. This is why, to keep the cylinders and valves from soldering themselves shut, they eventually wound up adding ethylene dibromide and ethylene dichloride to the mix, so that combustion produced the highly volatile compounds lead bromide and lead chloride, which could be depended upon to leave the engine in the exhaust gas stream and go off to join that great smoggy mass in the sky. And at last there was much rejoicing in Detroit, and happy motoring in the streets.

And all over America, the bloodstream lead levels of city dwellers began to rise...

Devout Libertarians like to say that left to its own devices, the invisible hand of the free market will take care of everything, including environmental problems. I use this story to illustrate the point that sometimes the invisible hand is holding an invisible gun, and it's pointed right at your head. What finally ended the use of TEL in common gasoline was not the force of the free market — Ford had championed the use of non-toxic lead alternatives for years, and failed — but the much-maligned Environmental Protection Agency, which in the 1970s, after years of litigation that was fought every step of the way by the Ethyl Corporation, finally got leaded gasoline mostly banned in the United States.

Notice I said "mostly." Leaded gasoline is still available for use in piston-engined aircraft and as high-octane automotive racing fuel. It's also still manufactured and sold in many lovely countries, such as Yemen, North Korea, parts of Northwest Africa, Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iraq, Jordan, and the Palestinian territories.

So, let's review. Inhaling vaporized lead has been proven to cause stupidity, insanity, and violence. And it's widely used where?

Offhand, I'd say this explains a lot.