The removal of lead from gasoline: historical and personal reflections

Environ Res. 2000 Sep;84(1):20-35. doi: 10.1006/enrs.2000.4069.


Tetraethyllead (TEL) was first fabricated for use in gasoline in 1923. Shortly after manufacture began, workers at all three plants began to become floridly psychotic and die. A moratorium on TEL production was put into place, but was lifted in 1926. Between 1926 and 1965, the prevailing consensus was that lead toxicity occurred only at high levels of exposure and that lead in the atmosphere was harmless. Most of the data on lead toxicity issued from a single source, the Kettering Laboratory in Cincinnati. In 1959, the first warnings of adverse health effects of lead at silent doses were raised by Clair Patterson, a geochemist. In hearings before the Senate Committee on Public Works, Senator Edward Muskie raised the question of adverse health effects from airborne lead. As new data accumulated on health effects of lead at lower doses, the movement to remove lead from gasoline gained momentum, and the Environmental Protection Agency examined the question. The removal of lead would take place over the next 25 years, and its accomplishment would require a severe change in the federal stance regarding its hazard. This article details the interaction of various forces, industrial, regulatory, judicial, public health, and public interest, that were engaged in this contest and estimates the value of this step.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollutants / adverse effects
  • Air Pollutants / history
  • Air Pollution / history*
  • Air Pollution / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Air Pollution / prevention & control
  • Gasoline / adverse effects
  • Gasoline / history
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Industry / history
  • Industry / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Lead Poisoning / etiology
  • Lead Poisoning / history*
  • Public Health / history*
  • Tetraethyl Lead / adverse effects
  • Tetraethyl Lead / history
  • United States
  • United States Environmental Protection Agency / history


  • Air Pollutants
  • Gasoline
  • Tetraethyl Lead