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This 1920s Inventor Sped Up Climate Change With His Chemical Creations

August 23, 2019 in History

By Joseph A. Williams

Thomas Midgley

Inventions through history have often made everyday tasks easier and some, like trains, the . Jackson describes how an industrial-scale refrigerator on display at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair caught fire and eventually exploded, killing 17 firefighters.The domestic refrigerators that followed around 30 years later used sulfur dioxide, which although not flammable was highly toxic. Leaks of this gas killed families in their sleep.”

GM’s refrigerator division, Frigidaire, had been showing losses for years. Midgley with a team of scientists undertook a search for a non-toxic, non-flammable refrigerant. In 1930, they found a solution in dichlorodifluoromethane, which they sold under the brand name freon-12. This was the world’s first CFC. To demonstrate its safety, Midgley inhaled the stuff and blew out a candle.

Freon caught on and became ubiquitous in refrigerators, cooling units and aerosol spray cans as propellants. What Midgely did not know is that CFCs deplete the Earth’s ozone layer which protects life from ultra violet and other forms of radiation. Even worse, CFC’s are super greenhouse gases which contributes to global warming and climate change at a much greater rate than even carbon dioxide.

Even though CFC’s like freon-12 were banned or severely restricted starting with the Montreal Protocol in 1987, they linger in the atmosphere. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, CFCs have an atmospheric lifespan of up to 140 years.

Lauded, Midgley won almost every prestigious award in his profession. He was given the Willard Gibbs Medal, the Nichols Medal, the Priestly Medal, and the Perkin Medal. Aside from TEL and freon, Midgley also held about 170 other patents. It is only in recent decades that the damaging consequences of his inventions became known.

Midgley is not solely responsible for all the environmental ills generated by TEL and CFCs. Businesses of the day often disregarded the potential impact of pollutants in the environment either by underestimating the impact of those pollutants or thinking that it was a negligible problem. Neither was there any appreciable regulation of potential pollutants.

In the case of CFCs, he believed them to be less harmful than exploding refrigerators. “I think it would be unfair to criticize Midgley for his work on CFCs,” says Jackson. “They were an inelegant solution to a commercial problem, but one that Midgley and others thought was safe.”

On the other hand, Jackson says that since the toxic effects of lead were already known …read more


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