Not Fit To Lead: Plumbing the deaths of depravity

Yes, I said deaths, not depths.  The recent Veritasium video below is saddening and frustrating.

Thomas Midgley Jr. (*) is arguably the single greatest mass murderer in human history, responsible for over 100 million people’s deaths and environmental disasters by two of his inventions: the addition of lead to gasoline (deaths by lead poisoning and reduced human intelligence by poisoning the environment, not counting the millions killed by speeding cars) and the creation of freon which caused the ozone hole in our atmosphere.

(* Amended: Midgley, not Charles Kettering who hired him.  No one corrected me on my error, which tells me either no one’s a stickler for details or no one read this post. ^_^)

Lead has been known for about 7000 years of human civilization since we learnt to work metal.  Its low melting point (328°C, about the same temperature as burning wood) made it easy to extract from rocks.  But its use has poisoned the world, its rise in use demonstrated by ice cores in the Antarctic.  Lead has been used as a roofing material and paint (re: the toxic fumes from the Notre Dame fire in Paris), in solder (welding, computers, etc.) and in water pipes.  What politicians have done to the poor in Flint, Michigan should be called a crime agaist humanity.

How different would the world be (ourselves, the environment) if lead’s melting point were a thousand degrees higher, closer to nickel, iron, cobalt, and copper?  Unlike radioactivity which can be contained and slowly deteriorates, lead (and arsenic, mercury, selenium, etc.) is a poison that stays permanently in the environment and human bodies.  And we put it there in the name of profit.


At 18:10, he mentions the rise and decline of both lead levels in children and violent crime in society with a twenty year lag.  But he doesn’t ask or mention why it declined.

In 1981, the US and other countries started phasing out and banning the use of lead as an additive in gasoline.  By the mid 1990s, the majority of countries had stopped using it in cars.  It was only in 2021 that Algeria, the last country still using leaded gas, finally banned it.



  1. says

    Yeah, I never understood why lead (or, more specifically, tetra-ethyl-lead, IIRC) had to be added to gasoline in the first place…

  2. lorn says

    Look around. Why are so many houses white? Why is structural steel still typically coming from the factory painted red? It comes down to tradition and the tradition is founded on lead as a material.

    I’ve always been interested in early building construction books. One was about working as a painter. It was a reprint from a 1880s manual and in addition to selecting buckets and brushes it covered making your own paint.

    It suggested setting up a wooden rack, perhaps in the basement. From this you suspended scrap lead over ceramic pans of hydrochloric acid. The white substance, after rinsing and a bit of sifting and grinding, was the beautifully white base for your paint. The remainder was linseed oil. Makes great paint. It is bright white, last far longer that white-wash, it sheds water and protects wood from rot and insects, it chalks just enough to be self cleaning, and it is cheap to make. Add coloring agents and it can be any color.

    Add ground iron oxide and you get a terracotta red that is popular for barns and fences. Add more iron oxide and a hardening oil and it is a suitable paint for protecting steel from rust.

    White or red the powder can be mixed with less oil and you get a good putty, caulk, or thread sealant. Depends on the type and amount of oil you add.

    Of course, all of these substances are toxic as hell but your house looks nice, your windows don’t leak, your pipes don’t drip, and the structural steel doesn’t rust. That’s got to be worth something.

    As a kid I watched the electricians heat up a ladle full of solder over a propane burner. The molten lead was walked from box to box and the copper wires, left long and hanging down, but twisted to make connections, were dipped into the iron ladle. The connections were then wrapped with rubber, and then, cotton-based friction tapes.

    I used to save the lead and wire seals that were discarded and use them for projects. Saved lead wheel-weights also. I grew up soldering up circuits. Candles, right up into the 70s sometimes had a bit if lead wrapped around the wick to keep it upright. Later, I was told they went with tin. Hate to think of where that lead went as the candle burned.

    Lead was everywhere.