The story I have to tell here involves unnecessary cancer deaths and foot-dragging auto companies. Simply put, carmakers could have introduced an effective smog-killing catalytic converter as early as the 1950s, at the same time removing carcinogenic lead from gasoline. Unfortunately, those reforms were delayed for more than 20 years. And it appears that at least one automaker had a lucrative stake in the status quo.
As I reported in my 1999 book Forward Drive, a Dutch-born scientist named Arie Haagen-Smit demonstrated as early as 1949 that smog was caused by unburned hydrocarbons emitted from automobile tailpipes. Tom McCarthy's recent book Auto Mania takes up a key part of this story: French chemist Eugene Houdry created the first workable catalytic converter, patenting it in 1949. By 1954 he developed a working prototype called the OCM Muffler, which Los Angeles air pollution officials road tested on six vehicles for 10,000 miles each. It was conclusively demonstrated that, if the cars were run on unleaded gasoline 80 percent or more of unburned hydrocarbons would be eliminated, and there would be significant reductions in carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides.
French chemist Eugene Houdry with his revolutionary catalytic converter. (Photo courtesy of Sunoco)
The problem here is that leaded gasoline was the standard in 1954. The sad story of how it got there is told in Jamie Kitman's Nation magazine expose, "The Secret History of Lead" (2000). Not only that, but General Motors owned 50 percent of the Ethyl Corporation, which made millions annually on lead as an additive. GM said at the time that there were too many obstacles to a commercial catalytic converter to make it feasible, and other automakers agreed. There were indeed some durability challenges, but nothing focused engineers couldn't have quickly resolved. An industry group did say that a device would be ready by 1958, but it didn't happen. Working with Houdry's company, GM tried to develop a lead-tolerant converter, but that work went nowhere.
We now turn to research by Bill Kovarik of Radford University and Matthew Hermes of Kennesaw State. In their "Fuels and Society," they report that GM finally got out of the leaded gasoline business in 1962, when it sold the Ethyl Corporation to a small Virginia-based paper company. Still, it wasn't until passage of the Clean Air Act in 1970 (which required a 90 percent reduction in auto exhaust) that automakers finally got serious about the catalytic converter, and getting the lead out.
The professors report, "[O]n January 14, 1970, GM president Ed Cole told a Society of Automotive Engineers conference that the 'pollution-free' car was possible if two conditions were met:
Automakers, they report, felt pressure from growing environmental passion in Congress, vociferous criticism from Ralph Nader and his ilk, and antitrust lawsuits from the federal government. But the catalytic converter was further delayed when, in 1973, the now GM-free Ethyl Corporation successfully sued the newly created Environmental Protection Agency in federal court to stop the phase-out of lead from gasoline. The argument that lead was not a public health hazard temporarily prevailed, but was overturned by an appeals court in 1976. Finally, lead was out and catalytic converters were in, 20 years after they were conclusively proven to dramatically cut pollution and save lives.
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