Monday, December 04, 2006

The Worst Polluter In The World

Sometime, my son and I have Really Intelligent Serious Conversations. During a call today on Skype to divulge the news that he’s bought a new Volvo (new to him that is), we started discussing pollution. He came up with a snippet about pollution. After much research, a ham sandwich and a cold beer, here's something which I felt you, Dear Readers, would be dying to know about.

If you were asked who was the worst ever polluter in the world, some would no doubt mention one of the US Presidents for the country’s record on pollution. Or Rudolf Diesel who invented the dreaded diesel engine. But you would be wrong.

This accolade must surely be awarded to Thomas Midgley Jr. The historian J.R. McNeill commented that Midgley “had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in earth’s history.” Praise indeed. Although born in Pennsylvania in 1889, Midgley grew up in Ohio. After graduation from Cornell University, he ended up working at the Dayton Research Laboratories (part of General Motors). In December of 1921, Midgley discovered that the addition of tetra-ethyl lead (TEL or Lead to us mere mortals) to gasoline prevented
internal combustion engines from "knocking" or “pinking” as it’s known in other parts of the world. The company called the substance "Ethyl", avoiding all mention of lead in reports and advertising. Oil companies and car makers, especially GM which owned the patent, strenuously promoted leaded fuel as an alternative to ethanol or ethanol-blended fuels, on which they could make very little profit. (Remember, Dear Reader, this was in the 1920s. With all the chatter in the media about hydrogen and electric cars of the future, do you think the oil companies and car makers are going to change their 80 year old habits?)

The addition of lead to gasoline eventually resulted in the release of huge amounts of lead into the atmosphere, causing health problems around the world. Midgley himself had to take a prolonged break to cure him of
lead poisoning!

When he returned to Ohio, GM asked Midgley in 1930 to develop a non-toxic and safe refrigerant for household appliances. He discovered dichlorodifluoromethane, a chlorinated fluorocarbon (
CFC) which he called Freon. CFCs replaced the various toxic or explosive substances previously used as the working fluid in heat pumps and refrigerators. CFCs were also used as propellants in aerosol spray cans, and metered dose inhalers (asthma inhalers). I suspect that anyone inhaling CFCs would have had asthma as a result!

In 1940, he contracted
polio which left him severely disabled. This led him to devise an elaborate system of strings and pulleys to lift him from bed. This system was the eventual cause of his death when he was accidentally entangled in the ropes of this device and died of strangulation in 1944 at the age of 55. The same year D.D.T. was invented.

His inventions have caused more pollution than any other, but he died before anyone knew of it. I guess hindsight is 20/20 vision.

Here endeth today’s grave lesson.