Americas,  ER,  United States

The Loony Gas Building

Standard Oil Refinery in New Jersey
Standard Oil Refinery in New Jersey

In 1924, five men dropped dead in New Jersey.  Not altogether a strange occurrence, but it led to the discovery of a case of industrial poisoning.  The bodies were taken to the New York medical examiner’s office to be studied by our old friend, Chuck Norris.  This Chuck Norris, as you know from a previous post (, was not the martial arts specialist, but a badass in a different arena.  Dr. Charles Norris was one of the foremost pioneers in the science of forensic pathology.

The five men all worked in the Standard Oil Refinery in Bayway, New Jersey in a building nicknamed the Loony Gas Building.  It looked like any other unassuming factory building, but something was going on in there.  Something that was making the employees sick.  The  men who worked in the building were short tempered, unable to sleep and moody.  They began losing their memory- forgetting familiar friends, the way to work, the way home.  Then they started collapsing and babbling incoherently.  By December 1924, five of these men were dead.  Enter Dr. Charles Norris.

See, the Loony Gas Building was where Standard Oil was researching a new gasoline additive to keep cars from having an engine knock.  That additive was Tetraethyl lead or TEL.  Anyone with the least amount of chemistry knows that lead is very bad for the human body.  Yet these men had been going to work and breathing in the lead vapors for almost a year.  Standard Oil didn’t seem too worried and issued a response breathtaking in its cruelty.   “These men probably went insane because they worked too hard,” the building manager told The New York Times. Those who didn’t survive had merely worked themselves to death, he continued, due to enthusiasm for the job.  I’m sure breathing in toxic fumes had nothing to do with it.

Through the testing of the lab under Dr. Alexander Gettler, they found that the men who died had heavy lead poisoning.  The last man who died screaming in a straightjacket had high concentrations of lead in the bones, brain and lungs.  The highest concentrations were in the lungs indicating it was mainly inhaled.  The workers had been issued masks, but they did not filter out the lead.  

Norris issued his own statement to the press.  “The fact that it is readily absorbed and highly poisonous was discovered in Germany about 1854 when tetraethyl lead was discovered, and it has not been used in industry during most of its seventy years since then because of its known deadliness.”  Based on his research, New York banned TEL.  New Jersey and Philadelphia followed suit.  Standard Oil maintained TEL was fine.  At a press conference, the developer of TEL, Thomas Midgley, Jr., announced there was nothing dangerous about TEL and washed his hands in a bowl of it.  Later he had to be treated for lead exposure, but that was not mentioned in the press.13241133_276373199371436_7292348910995588416_n

Fearing that the bans would spread, Standard Oil and GM went to President Calvin Coolidge.  There was a lot of money at stake as TEL was great at solving their engine knock problem.  The two companies had invested a lot into it, and didn’t want to do the research and development to find another solution.  Coolidge, a small government pro business Republican, agreed and called a federal investigation.  The fix was in as the results were written before the commission even met.  Noticeably, neither Norris or Gettler were on the federal panel.  Only scientists in the pocket of GM or Standard Oil.  Unsurprisingly, TEL was declared safe by the panel in January 1926.

A comparison of lead particles in dirt from 1924 and dirt from 1934 showed an increase of 50%.  By 1986 when TEL was banned, lead particles in soils, streets, building surfaces had increased immeasurably.  It is estimated 68 million children would register toxic levels of lead absorption and some 5,000 American adults would die annually of lead-induced heart disease.  Some neuroscientists also suggested that chronic lead exposure resulted in a measurable drop in IQ scores during the leaded gas era.  Researchers have also said that this lead exposure may have contributed to the increase in violent crime as well.

So we’re all still stuck in the Loony Gas Building


Sources available on request