Chlorofluorocarbons “Freon”

Freon is the brand name of a Chlorofluorocarbon gas. It replaced other refrigerant chemicals that were more toxic or volatile, including ammonia. Throughout the 20th century, Freon became the dominant refrigerant gas.

The team that invented Freon was led by Thomas Midgley, Jr., who earlier had invented leaded gasoline. It was a joint venture between GM and DuPont, via a company called Kinetic Chemicals.

Eventually, scientists discovered Freon is incredibly environmentally destructive. The US and EU strongly discouraged the use of Freon in the late 1900s. They banned it in 2020. Midgley is arguably responsible for more environmental damage than any other single inventor.

While Freon was toxic to the environment it was largely non-toxic to human beings. There is little doubt that Midgley knew about the problems with lead but it remains less clear if he understood the problems with freon. To demonstrate the non-toxicity of Freon, Midgley once allegedly breathed it in then blew it onto a candle.

Like leaded gasoline, Midgley invented freon at Kettering Laboratories then licensed the patent to Frigidaire, then a division of General Motors.

Tetraethyllead (Leaded Gasoline)

Leaded gasoline prevented engine ping, making driving safer and more pleasant. Correspondingly, it also caused an enormous amount of extremely toxic pollution.

Working for GM under the direct supervision of Charles Kettering at Dayton Research Laboratory, Midgley discovered the benefits of adding lead to gasoline. They named their innovation Tetraethyllead, avoiding any mention of lead, a known toxin.

Eventually, Tetraethyllead leaded gasoline became the standard, with tailpipes emitting poison throughout the world.

Eventually, the catalytic converter enabled lead-free gasoline. Virtually all countries banned Midgley’s leaded gasoline by the mid-1990s and early 2000s.

Speculation remains that the lead pollution had profound health and environmental impact. A substantive decline in violent crime is sometimes attributed to the banning of Midgley’s Tetraethyllead.

Midgley’s lead plant both killed many people and drove others insane.

Midgley also invented CFC’s putting him in the running for the most destructive scientist of all time, short-listed with the likes of Fritz Haber.

Eventually, Midgley died from a pully contraption he invented.