DUPONT'S DUPLICITY: Profiting at the Planet's Expense By Curtis Moore Curtis Moore is an environmental writer and analyst who served for 11 years as counsel to the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. E.I. DUPONT DE NEMOURS AND COMPANY has developed and marketed a long line of harmful products. The company which is controlled by the DuPont family is responsible for HCFCs and CFCs as well as "Ethyl," the lead additive for gasoline. The most troubling aspect of DuPont's inventions is not that some have damaged the environment, but that the company has consistently treated the long-term interests of humanity as largely irrelevant. The case of leaded gasoline at the turn of the century illustrates this corporate disregard and bears a resemblance to the struggles over CFCs in the 1970s and eighties. Leaded gasoline, along with other products like pipes and paint made with the toxic metal, has irrevocably damaged the intelligence of two generations of American children and is responsible for 50,000 deaths a year by heart attack and stroke. The "Ethyl" story begins in 1904 when William Durant acquired the Buick Motor Company which became the cornerstone for General Motors (GM)--a conglomerate formed by Durant in 1908 when he bought 20 other car companies, including Cadillac and Oldsmobile. Sapped of capital, Durant and General Motors became easy prey for DuPont which gobbled up the company a piece at a time until, on December 1, 1920, Pierre du Pont became both president and chairman of the board of General Motors. At the same time that DuPont was consolidating control of General Motors, GM scientists were perfecting a compound to boost the octane content of gasoline--a measure of the fuel's anti-knock properties. General Motors first marketed the additive in 1922. In 1924, GM joined with the oil giant, Standard Oil of New Jersey, to form the Ethyl Corporation which would market the chemical. This was a wholly owned subsidiary and ownership was split 50-50 between the DuPont-controlled General Motors and Standard. The marketing of Ethyl soon drew criticism. As General Motors began to develop markets, chemistry professor William Clark warned the Assistant Surgeon General that Ethyl was "a serious menace to the public health." In response to reports that several serious cases of lead poisoning had already occurred, General Motors executives replied that levels "on the average street will probably be so free of lead that it will be impossible to detect it." DuPont was forced to address the problem, however, in late 1924 when reports broke that 80 percent of the workers making Ethyl at DuPont and Standard Oil plants had been killed or severely poisoned. There was such extensive nerve damage among workers that one refinery became known as "the House of Butterflies" because of hallucinations suffered by its employees. Ethyl was pulled from the market abruptly and the Surgeon General appointed a blue-ribbon panel of scientists to study the additive. Amidst a growing outcry from scientists, the proponents of Ethyl mounted a campaign in its defense. DuPont ran full-page ads in Life magazine, and secretly hired a noted consultant from the U.S. Government's Workers' Health Bureau. In a hearing held by the Surgeon General, spokesmen for Ethyl, citing the need to save energy, praised the chemical as an "apparent Gift of God." Calling lead "a certain means of saving petroleum," the company's representatives asked: "Because some animals die, and some do not die in some experiments, shall we give this thing up entirely?" The Surgeon General's panel concluded that "there are at present no good grounds for prohibiting the use of ethyl gasoline." The experts did, however, urge that long-term research be conducted and regulations be established because, they said, "Longer experience may show [that even low levels of lead] may lead eventually in susceptible individuals to recognizable or to chronic degenerative diseases of a less obvious character." This weak-kneed conclusion had little effect. Lead returned to the market; no regulations were ever issued; the studies were never conducted; and it was not until a half-century later that the chemical was banned after scientists established conclusively lead's detrimental health consequences. Some refiners had refused to buy the lead additive, preferring instead to produce higher octane, unleaded gasoline through more sophisticated refineries. The result was gasolines like Sun Oil's "Blue Sunoco" that not only were of higher octane than Ethyl, but were unleaded and even sold for two to three cents less per gallon. But DuPont fought its challengers relentlessly, going so far as to introduce, through GM, a new car engine which ran only on leaded gasoline. This high-compression engine has filled cities throughout the world with smog. Consequently, DuPont's marketing of Ethyl produced a widely-used toxic chemical. By the mid-1950s Ethyl gasoline dominated the domestic market. Eventually, Blue Sunoco disappeared entirely--the same fate that befell the refrigerants which were rivals of "Freon," another of the GM-DuPont inventions. Indeed, the parallels between DuPont's handling of CFCs and Ethyl are striking. Both were invented by the same team and the same lab at roughly the same time. But they share more than that; the DuPont company adopted similar strategies to maintain sales of these environmentally hazardous products. In both cases, DuPont answered critics' concerns about health and environmental hazards with bold-faced denials. In 1924, when questioned by reporters concerning the safety of the lead additive, Thomas Midgley, an inventor and later a vice president of General Motors, washed his hands in pure tetraethyl and dried them on his handkerchief, according to one historian. Six years later, to demonstrate dramatically the safety of the CFCs which he had invented, Midgley took a deep breath of one of the chemicals and then exhaled to blow out a candle. In 1974, after doctors F. Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina warned that Freon destroyed ozone, DuPont vice president Raymond L. McCarthy told Congress that the suggestion that Freon destroyed ozone was "purely speculative with no concrete evidence having been developed to support it.n A half-century earlier, General Motors was making similar statements concerning the warnings about Ethyl. At that time, the GM director of research told the President of the American Medical Association that "there is no danger of acquiring lead poisoning even through prolonged exposure to exhaust gases of cars using Ethyl gas." The 1927 Life magazine ads which DuPont ran to rehabilitate the Ethyl additive's public reputation were matched in 1975 by full- page ads in the New York Times and other daily newspapers, supporting CFCs and paid for by DuPont. With the evidence mounting and the completion of an international treaty banning CFCs, DuPont was finally forced to concede that CFCs can and do destroy stratospheric ozone. But the ever-resourceful company is now seeking to capture the market in substitutes. These substitute chemicals are still ozone-depleters, and, in much the same way that the name "Ethyl" was coined to avoid any reference to lead DuPont has renamed the substitute for CFCs. This allows companies that use the product to claim that they are responding to environmental concerns without being forced to give up the convenience and economic advantages of their destructive practices (see sidebar - omitted here; unscannable). Once again, a multi-billion dollar market is preserved by a play on words. And, once again, DuPont is assuring the public and policy-makers that there is no cause for concern, even though company representatives concede that the substitutes they are pushing destroy ozone. Testifying before Congress, the Alliance for a Responsible Chlorofluorocarbon Policy--an industry group founded by DuPont and other CFC manufacturers and users--said the newly-named, ozone destroying chemicals "can be used well into the next century with no additional impact on peak chlorine levels." DuPont warned a that there are no alternatives to the HCFC compounds short of economic ruin, much as it did with respect to lead in 1925 and CFCs in 1975. One DuPont executive said at a Congressional hearing: "We caution you to be skeptical about claims that technologies other than those using HCFCs are viable in the near term for all current CFC applications. You should question their environmental acceptability, safety, energy efficiency and ability to be mass produced to meet society's needs." Yielding to these arguments, as it did with leaded gasoline in the 1920s and CFCs in the 1970s, the federal government seems on the verge of granting DuPont's request to continue HCFC production. Privately, officials at the Environmental Protection Agency say they are willing to allow production and use of the HCFC until the year 2030. Congress, for all its hand-wringing about ozone depletion, has never taken direct regulatory action against CFCs or their manufacturers and seems unlikely to begin now. Meanwhile, the same corporations which were wrong about CFCs and wrong about lead continue to conduct a global experiment with the environment and humanity's future.