Which One Man Has Destroyed The Environment The Most?

Thomas Midgley Junior

Everyone plays their small daily part in ruining our watery little planet, but one man went that extra 1,000 miles and really destroyed it hard – by mistake.

Nope, it’s not George Bush, Henry Ford, or even Jennifer Aniston, and it’s probably a name you’ve never heard before: Thomas Midgley Jr. He was a bright spark American scientist type fella born in 1889. During his career he was awarded honorary degrees and other accolades, he was a very well respected scientist at the time, so what exactly did he do that was so god damn naughty to the environment? Well, I’ll tell you.

When internal combustion engines were first invented, they made a raucous banging sound whilst running, called “knocking”. It was an annoying problem for car manufacturers because no-one likes a noisy drive. As well as being a noise pest, knocking meant the engines were less efficient and vehicles couldn’t reach very high speeds, so Midgley and his team at General Motors (GM) got to work to find out how to fix this knocking nightmare. Midgley found that by adding Tetraethyl-lead (TEL) to the fuel you could cut out the banging beef. They marketed it as Ethyl to avoid the mention of lead, as every idiot knows lead is a neurotoxin and therefore it’s a bad idea for it to be readily available. There were in fact other solutions to the knocking problem (fuel/alcohol mixes) but GM couldn’t make any money out of that because any muppet could add booze to petrol. So they thought lets just promote the shit out of leaded petrol and to hell with the consequences.


After a year or so of lead based tinkering, Thomas had to take 12 months off work due to lead poisoning. The company still kept banging out the anti-knocking compound as quick as it could though, despite several lead related deaths in the factory where it was produced. GM moved production to another plant to pick up production speeds. In the new plant there was lead poisoning galore. There were deaths, hallucinations and madness. In one week in 1924 there were 35 workers poisoned and 5 killed. In a press conference in October 1924 (in an effort to prove how “safe” TEL was) Midgley poured it over his hands and sniffed the container with vigor, proclaiming its safety. He didn’t mention to the press, however, that it took him a year to get over the effects of that publicity stunt. So he knew lead was bad, but to be fair he couldn’t have fully imagined the damage that the lead was to do to the environment over the coming decades I suppose.

But oh my word there was worse to come…

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