Health Requires That We Replace Gasoline

<i> Samuel S. Epstein, MD, is a professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Chicago</i>

With today’s vote of the South Coast Air Quality Management District on its 20-year plan, and in light of new federal regulations on ozone-related gasoline volatility, the time for tough, fundamental decisions on motor fuels is long overdue.

The relatively low retail price charged the U.S. taxpayer for gasoline totally fails to reflect its hidden costs. Apart from the strategic and security costs of dependence on foreign imports, the environmental and public-health costs are prohibitive. These include:

--The contribution of gasoline combustion to global warming.

--Spills from offshore and tundra drilling and marine accidents.


--Contamination of surface and ground waters by drilling muds, hazardous refinery wastes and effluents and leaking storage tanks.

--Leukemia and brain and other cancers in refinery workers.

--Atmospheric emissions from refineries responsible for cancers in neighboring communities.

--Emissions from the gasoline distribution system and vehicle refueling, evaporative and exhaust emissions producing carcinogen-laced urban smog responsible for cancer as well as heightened respiratory and cardiovascular disease.

Gasoline is more dangerous than ever. With the phase-out of lead additives, the aromatic content of gasoline has doubled, particularly in super premium (93 octane) gasoline. The principal aromatic hydrocarbons--benzene, toluene and xylene--make up more than 40% of gasoline. Benzene is also produced by combustion of aromatic hydrocarbons even in benzene-free gasoline. Automobile-related emissions are responsible for 85% of the increasing national benzene emissions, about 130,000 tons per year.

Consumers are now routinely exposed to 1 part per million (p.p.m.) benzene during full-service gasoline refueling, and 3 p.p.m. at self-serve pumps. This exceeds the 1 p.p.m. exposure standard above which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration requires that workers be warned and protected. Based on inhalation tests in rodents, the Environmental Protection Agency estimated in 1984 that the probability of developing cancer following lifetime exposure to 1 p.p.m. benzene or gasoline is about 1% and 0.1%, respectively. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee recently concluded that exposure to such levels is responsible for about 220 extra cancers per year in the Los Angeles Basin alone.

Apart from the excess risk of leukemia and cancer, Dow Chemical Co. in 1980 reported genetic damage in workers exposed to only 1 p.p.m. benzene. It is the overwhelming consensus of the independent scientific community that there is no way of setting safe exposure levels or tolerances to any chemical agent such as benzene that can induce genetic damage or cancer. It is clear that gasoline, in all phases of production, use and disposal, is a major source of environmental and occupational carcinogens and preventable cancers.

In 1984 the American Petroleum Institute identified a new class of carcinogens in gasoline even more potent than benzene. Long-term inhalation of unleaded gasoline by rodents induced liver and kidney cancers that were associated with isoalkanes in gasoline. The significance of these findings, which API initially suppressed and subsequently trivialized, is underscored by the 142% increase in kidney cancer in American males from 1950-1985.


Aromatic hydrocarbons, especially xylene, also contribute to the formation of the urban ozone soup, a major cause of respiratory disease, particularly in the young and elderly. Ozone is formed when volatile organic compounds react in the presence of heat and sunlight.

Are these problems the price we must pay for efficient transportation and progress? Despite industry propaganda, few modern automobiles need 93 octane gasolines, costing 10 to 20 cents per gallon more than regular (87 octane) unleaded. The bottom line: The petroleum industry sells gasolines we don’t need that are slowly killing us and destroying the environment.

Economical and safer alternatives to gasoline are readily available. EPA-approved alcohol and ether fuels can replace aromatics and improve octane in our cars with little adverse effect on human health or the environment. Eventually, these fuels could completely replace gasoline. Fuel ethanol, used in Brazil for years, has been sold in this country as “gasohol,” 10% agriculturally derived ethanol and 90% gasoline. Despite the petroleum industry’s claims that ethanol and methanol are too expensive, compared to the retail and hidden price we pay for gasoline, these fuels are a true bargain.

The problem lies in the petroleum industry’s resistance to fuels not produced from a barrel of crude oil. Much of today’s petroleum industry is free-ranging and multinational, indifferent to the security interests of their customer nations, especially when supplies are cheaper elsewhere. Yet, according to the National Security Defense Council Foundation, the petroleum industry expected U.S. taxpayers to ante up an extra $36.25 to defend every barrel of oil that came out of the Persian Gulf, a cost never included in the price of gasoline at the pump. On an annual basis, this totaled $14.7 billion or roughly the annual budget of U.S. Department of Energy.


These true externalized costs of gasoline must be reflected in tough legislation and incentives for the expanded use of safer, clean-burning fuels, coupled with draconian penalties on “dirty” fuels. Such measures would improve public health, enhance air quality, reduce dependence on foreign oil, boost U.S. agriculture and reduce the federal budget deficit.

In the last analysis, the multinational petroleum industry is a reckless corporate citizen that holds the world at ransom. Time and again, when a choice between profit and human health or the environment or national security must be made, the industry will choose profit every time. The expeditious phase-out of runaway petroleum technologies and ultra-hazardous, obsolete, gasoline fuels must become an immediate national priority.