Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Bill Bryson and why Swedes should rule the world

I'm still feeling too burnt out to be creative, so I thought I'd just steal from my current book, A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

Bryson writes about Thomas Midgley, Jr., the man who invented leaded gasoline around 1921. Leaded gasoline, while being wildly destructive to humans and the environment, really made engines run smoothly, so GM, Du Pont and Standard Oil invested heavily in it - the new fuel being released for public use in 1923.

"Almost at once production workers began to exhibit the staggered gait and confused faculties that mark the recently poisoned. Also almost at once, the Ethyl Corporation embarked on a policy of calm but unyielding denial that would serve it well for decades. As Sharon Bertsch McGrayne notes in her aborbing history of industrial chemistry, Prometheans in the Lab, when employees at one plant developed irreversible delusions, a spokesman blandly informed reporters: "These men probably went insane because they worked too hard." Altogether at least fifteen workers died in the early days of production of leaded gasoline, and untold numbers of others became ill, often violently so; the exact numbers are unknown because the company nearly always managed to hush up news of embarrassing leakages, spills, and poisonings. At times however, suppressing the news became impossible, most notably in 1924 when in a matter of days five production workers died and thirty-five more were turned into permanent staggering wrecks at a single ill-vented facility.

As rumors circulated about the dangers of the new product, ethyl's inventor, Thomas Midgley, decided to hold a demonstration for reporters to allay their concerns. As he chatted away about the company's commitment to safety, he poured tetraethyl lead over his hands, then held a beaker of it to his nose for sixty seconds, claiming all the while that he could repeat the procedure daily without harm. In fact, Midgley knew only too well the perils of lead poisoning: he had himself been made seriously ill from overexposure a few months earlier and now, except when reassuring journalists, never went near the stuff if he could help it."

It's just amazing - what big corporations will do to make a buck. This is like big tobacco saying that smoking doesn't cause cancer.

On the other side of the coin - a Toronto Star columnist named Christopher Hume seems to have spent some time in Sweden, because he's been writing interesting columns about how they're trying to save the earth:
This one is about the Swedes voting for fewer cars.
This is one is about the Swedish government basically forcing the country to shift towards biogas.

Have a great week everyone.

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