Sunday, September 6, 2009

From the fine folks who give you gas

From time to time it's important for me to stop obsessing over the dull witted and inane Republicans and take a moment to remember those who are truly evil. And in celebration of the Evil among us I give you the most evil man that ever existed - Thomas Midgley Jr.

What? You thought I was going to say Hitler - maybe Stalin, Saddam Hussein or were you thinking old school like Vlad the Impaler. No, no, no my friends - these idiots were mere amateurs; very micro-evil if you will. Midgley was far more horrific in scale and consequence. Midgley killed more people and continues to kill more people that all those old evil freaks combined. Midgley exported his evil around the world. He came very close to killing the Earth.

Okay - who is Thomas Midgley Jr.? He was a mechanical engineer and chemist, who invented tetra-ethyl lead (the lead in leaded gasoline) and if that wasn't enough he also invented chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

According to Wikipedia, "One historian remarked that Midgley 'had more impact on the atmosphere than any other single organism in Earth's history.'"

What is tetra-ethyl lead and why was it so dangerous? In the early 1920's, automobiles had a major problem - they knocked. I guess knocking is the wrong word. They sounded like the engine was going to explode when you drove it. Knocking occurs when the fuel inconsistently ignites, sometimes exploding outside of the piston. It was loud, smelly and would give a horse a heart attack.

Early on, automobile enthusiasts found that adding a bit of clear grain alcohol lowered the volatility of the gasoline and prevented knocking. Seems like problem solved right?

Well, here's the problem. Companies really hate the following things. 1) Anything that might lower their profit margin. Alcohol was a bit expensive compared to gasoline. 2) Is easily produced by small businesses or individuals. Grain alcohol is extremely easy to produce. 3) Uses common materials that can be found in any geographic location. All you need is grain, yeast and heat.

General Motors and the oil companies were desperately looking for an alternative. So along comes Evil Midgely and his plan is to put poisonous lead in gasoline I have to give it Junior, it worked, but it also pumped millions of tons of this neurotoxin into the air.

Children all across America suffered from lead poisoning just by breathing the air. According to an article in The Nation:

A 1985 EPA study estimated that as many as 5,000 Americans died annually from lead-related heart disease prior to the country's lead phaseout. According to a 1988 report to Congress on childhood lead poisoning in America by the government's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, one can estimate that the blood-lead levels of up to 2 million children were reduced every year to below toxic levels between 1970 and 1987 as leaded gasoline use was reduced. From that report and elsewhere, one can conservatively estimate that a total of about 68 million young children had toxic exposures to lead from gasoline from 1927 to 1987.

Now if that isn't pure evil, I don't know what is.

Midgely did suffer for his dirty deed. According to Wikipedia:

On October 30, Midgley participated in a press conference to demonstrate the "safety" of contact with the substance. In this demonstration, he poured tetra-ethyl lead over his hands, then placed a bottle of the chemical under his nose and breathed it in for sixty seconds, declaring that he could do this every day without succumbing to any problems whatsoever. However, the plant was decisively shut down by the State of New Jersey a few days later, and Standard was forbidden to manufacture TEL there again without state permission. Midgley himself was careful to avoid mentioning to the press that he subsequently required nearly a year to recover from the lead poisoning brought on by his demonstration.

This alone might qualify Midgely for "Most Evil" but he went one step further. In 1930, Midgely at the behest of GM invented a cheap chemical to use in refrigerant, dichlorodifluoromethane or CFC. Midgely came up with a much friendlier name, Freon.

My guess is that Midgely was not satisfied killing children, he needed a bigger project. So why not try to kill the Earth? What does CFC do that is so bad. It only destroys the Ozone layer in the atmosphere. Ozone is the only chemical that blocks harmful UV-B radiation. This radiation kills living organisms - like us.

For these two extraordinary accomplishments, I give to Thomas Midgely Jr. the "Holy Most Evil" award. Congratulations.

What happened to Midgely? Well, I guess there is some karmic justice in the universe. In 1940 Midgely contracted polio which left him severely disabled. Always the inventor, Midgely designed his own death. He created a system of pulleys and ropes to help get him into bed. One night he accidentally entangled himself in this device and died of strangulation.

The Nation's article on leaded gas
How do CFCs destroy the Ozone


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