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we were to judge the people who affected our planet within history, most people would place powerful politicians on top as they made certain choices that changed our planet as well as the future or the present we live in. However, the top spot would be allocated to someone who most people don’t even know even if his inventions and experiments have greatly impacted Earth’s ecosystem as well as the health of many people.

That someone is Thomas Midgley Jr. who was an engineer and chemist who loved to experiment with toxic substances without taking into consideration the consequences. Thomas is best known for creating tetraethyl lead which is found in all sorts of gasoline and is extremely harmful to the human body if exposed for a long period of time.

The life of Thomas Midgley Jr.

Thomas was born in Beaver Falls Pennsylvania in 1889. From a very young age, he had developed a passion for cars and that is why he was taught mechanics by his father Thomas Midgley Sr. who was an inventor that developed better car tires.

The Midgley family had a long history of being innovative within the automotive industry. Thomas’ grandfather worked close with James Watt, the man who improved the steam engine in the early 19th century.

Charles F. Kettering (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Once Thomas had graduated from Cornell University with a degree in mechanical engineering in 1911, he started working at a company in Dayton Ohio drawing up patents for new inventions. Thomas got to work with great inventors such as Charles F. Kettering from General Motors.

Kettering wanted to develop a new gasoline additive that would stop the engine from having ignition problems. This additive was requested by General Motors which was trying to overtake Ford from its success with the famous Model T. Kettering was working with Thomas to identify a substance that would help the engine run smoothly and prolong its life of the engine.

A big discovery with even bigger consequences

After months of work and research, Thomas found out that tetraethyl lead would solve the ignition problems within engines. The use of lead within engines would balance the distribution of fuel, making each piston receive an equal amount of fuel, therefore a balanced ignition.

The problem was that tetraethyl lead or organic lead was a very toxic substance that was discovered by a German chemist in 1852. Short-term exposure to lead can lead to many different side effects such as weakness, nausea, constipation, muscle aches, and so forth. Long-term exposure can lead to very serious health complications such as kidney diseases, heart diseases, and even reduced fertility.

If it is harmful to our body you can imagine that this is also very harmful to nature itself. At the time people didn’t know how harmful this toxin actually was, which is why it was used in many common products such as toothpaste, beauty products, and others. Although, the quantity of lead used in these products was very small, therefore it wasn’t harmful.

Thomas knew that tetraethyl lead wasn’t the best option due to its high toxicity. Despite other people, he actually knew that this substance was harmful to the human body, but he never grasped how damaging it would be once burned by engines all around the world.

This easy fix for engines was a profitable business, so profitable that General Motors, Du Pont, and Standard Oil, the three biggest oil companies in the 1920s came together to form Ethyl Gasoline Corporation in 1923. This new company would produce the lead additive that would be sold to the public.

Thomas who was put in charge of production tried to hide the negative side effects of lead from the public as much as possible, but since the first year of the company producing the additive, 15 workers died producing this stuff and hundreds were showing symptoms of exposure to lead.

This is where journalists got to work at spreading the bad practices in the factories where Ethyl fuel was produced and the harm of lead. In order for the company to not go bankrupt because of this, Thomas organized a demonstration in front of journalists to show them that tetraethyl lead was not harmful.

Thomas smelled lead for a whole minute and even washed his hands with it with no immediate effect. What the journalists and the world didn’t know at the time was that lead affects people after prolonged exposure. This convinced the journalists, but deep down Thomas knew how harmful lead was as he also started developing health problems from being around lead for a long time.

Another damaging invention

Although Ethyl was the most harmful product created by Thomas, this wasn’t the only one. In 1929 General Motors asked Thomas to produce a cooling agent for fridges that would not be flammable nor toxic. Fridges from the 1920s were dangerous as they used flammable gases to cool. In Cleveland, Ohio in 1929 over 100 people died due to a fridge that was leaking gas.

Thomas found a new element that could be used to create an efficient cooling agent. This was chlorofluorocarbon which is extremely harmful to the ecosystem. The cooling agent was so efficient that it was later implemented in air conditioners, deodorants, and other industrial machinery. Multiple studies have been done to show how this element depletes the ozone of our ecosystem.

Just to get an idea of how harmful this stuff is to our ecosystem, 500 grams of chlorofluorocarbon is enough to deplete 30 tons of ozone. The negative effects of chlorofluorocarbon were only discovered 30 years later in the 1960s and since then the use of chlorofluorocarbon has been banned in certain countries.

Thomas Midgley Jr killed by his own invention

These discoveries brought Thomas a lot of success, fame, and financial gain but at what price? In 1944 at 55 years of age, he was diagnosed with poliomyelitis, and due to the prolonged exposure to lead his condition got so bad that he wasn’t able to get up from bed.

As he was paralyzed from his hips downwards, Thomas invented a system that would allow him to raise himself from bed and get into the wheelchair. On the 2nd of November 1944, his wife found him strangled by the ropes of his invention.

Our world still suffering

Over time Lead kept on being implemented into fuels, not only for cars but even for planes which not only kept harming people but the ecosystem of the world. When fuel containing tetraethyllead has burned this escapes into the ecosystem that cycles through and is eventually implemented in nature, the water we drink, and the wildlife we eat as well as the fruits and vegetables we grow.

The biogeochemical cycle of the organolead compounds (Source: Science Direct)

There are plenty of studies that have been done showing how tetraethyllead has affected the ecosystem during the 20th century and even to this day our world has to live with the repercussions that have been caused primarily by Thomas Midgley Jr. In a research paper by J.R. Encinar and M. Moldovan from 2005 it is shown that tetraethyllead still affects our ecosystem to this day, just as shown in the diagram above created around the research.

Besides all the bad publicity around Ethyl, it became of the best-selling fuels around the 1930s and 1940s. Just imagine how many hundreds of thousands of cars have been burning lead within the ecosystem. The use of tetraethyllead as a gasoline additive had been going on for over 60 years as in 1986 it was banned as it was causing too much harm to the ecosystem.

The same goes for chlorofluorocarbon which although its use is being banned more and more around the world has still severely impacted the world’s environment for decades. I presume that more people actually knew about the harm of these products but the profits were so good that the bright minds who were aware were either bought or taken care of.

There are many different arguments about these harmful inventions created by Midgley. Some show him in a brighter light by arguing that without his innovations some technologies would have not been created or there may have been even more harmful inventions created. Whilst most argue that he has ruined the ecosystem of our planet.

I do not like to judge, but you cannot argue with decades of research that shows Thomas Midgley Jr. being the human that thus far has caused the most amount of harm to our planet and God knows how many people have died from lead poisoning. What makes it all worst is that he knew that all this stuff is very toxic, but he just didn’t know exactly how toxic and most importantly how it would affect the world.

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