The Ethyl Corporation: Back to the Future

Date: 9 Sep 1997 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

The Ethyl Corporation: Back to the Future

by David Morris

September 9 , 1997 – published in St. Paul Pioneer Press

On April 14, 1997 the Ethyl Corporation sued the Canadian government for $250 million. “We filed the claim because we think the goodwill of Ethyl’s name has been damaged”, says Ethyl executive Don Hollrah. Mr. Hollrah should rest assured. Ethyl’s place in history is secure.

Ethyl was born in 1923, the offspring of three of the nation’s mightiest companies: DuPont, General Motors, Standard Oil. Ethyl was formed to produce and sell a lead additive for gasoline. The gasolines of the time were inadequate to the needs of the newer, more powerful engines. The result was engine knock. The industry desperately needed an anti-knock additive. Ethanol, made from agricultural crops, could do the job. But ethanol occupies up to 10 percent of the gas tank and the oil companies were not about to give away that share of their market to the nation’s farmers. Instead they chose to put a few drops of lead into each gallon.

In 1923 ethyl, as leaded gasoline was popularly called, went on sale. But an explosion at a Standard Oil refinery in New Jersey killed several workers and severely injured many others and the nation became aware of the dangers of high lead levels. But were there problems caused by low lead concentrations? To answer that question the Surgeon General convened a task force. A year later it gave leaded gasoline a clean bill of health. Fifty years later historians found that Ethyl had used its partners’ considerable clout to manipulate public opinion and interfere in the fact finding process. Ethyl argued that since leaded gasoline had been used for two years and no problems had appeared, it was clearly safe.

By 1940 the majority of all gasoline had lead in it. Thirty five years later the EPA reduced the allowable level of lead in gasoline because it interfered with the efficient workings of catalytic converters. In the 1980s the overwhelming evidence of lead-associated damage in children’s nervous system led to the phasing out of lead in gasoline. Ethyl fought the EPA every step of the way. When lead was banned in US gasoline Ethyl continued to sell its product overseas. Lead levels along roads in Nigeria are reaching 7000 parts per million, about 15 times greater than the level required to be designated a Superfund site in the U.S. In Mexico City half the children tested have dangerous levels of lead.

In 1954, Ethyl invented a substitute for lead. Based on another heavy metal–manganese, the additive is called MMT. But MMT was never as cost-effective as lead and thus enjoyed only a small commercial success

When the EPA began to phase-out lead, Ethyl started to expand its sales of MMT. But the EPA, concerned that MMT would also interfere with pollution control devices on cars, banned its sale. Ethyl asked for a waiver. The EPA repeatedly rejected its applications, the last time for health concerns. Finally, in December 1995 a federal court ruled that the EPA has no authority to deny the use of a gasoline additive for health reasons and MMT went on sale again in this country. In March l997 Michigan regulators urged gasoline marketers and producers to refrain from using MMT until health studies have been completed.

In 1977 the Canadian government, unlike the EPA, allowed the use of MMT. This year Canada decided that it could interfere with pollution monitoring devices and sharply reduced the use of MMT. Ethyl sued under NAFTA, the first time a corporation has ever directly sued a government under an international trade agreement.

Scientists know that manganese causes brain damage when inhaled at high doses. We don’t know what its effects are at low dosages. Ethyl assures us that everything is fine because MMT has been used in Canada and no one has been injured yet. Given the terrible results from previous policy mistakes regarding lead, the EPA prefers to err on the precautionary side. But U.S. courts have denied it that right. Canada too, although for different reasons, now wants to adopt a conservative approach. NAFTA might force it to pay substantial damages to exercise that right.

In 1997, unlike in 1925, the oil and car industry are not Ethyl’s partners. The American Petroleum Institute has not taken a side in the current debate. Car companies oppose MMT. A survey done by the Environmental Defense Fund found that 85 percent of U.S. refiners have no plans to use MMT. Ethyl is now seeking to sell its manganese additive to developing countries that are just now phasing out lead.

No Mr. Hollrah. If Ethyl wins its lawsuit against Canada I doubt that would clear its good name. The history of Ethyl speaks for itself.

Morris is vice-president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

David Morris
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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.