On November 3, The Hill ran an editorial, ‘Toxic Chemicals in Gasoline Are Killing Americans’, by Larry Pearce, the Executive Director of the Governors Biofuels Coalition. In it, Pierce discusses the very real health threats posed by gasoline aromatics, a petrochemical compound often referred to as BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene and xylene). Twenty-five percent of every gallon of gasoline in the United States is comprised of the BTEX complex, in order to provide needed octane to the gasoline. Unfortunately, highways, roadways, cars and buses are simply part of life, and most Americans are unable to escape this toxic brew.
Gasoline aromatics, refined from crude oil, and “are the most toxic, energy inefficient, and expensive gasoline component,” according to Pearce. While the toxicity of benzene has long been known, more recent research has established the health effects of ultra-fine particles (UFPs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), products of the incomplete combustion of gasoline aromatics. These ultra-fine particles are 1/1000th the width of a human hair and may stay airborne for weeks at a time, allowing them to travel long distances and penetrate vehicles and buildings. These ultra-fines also act as carriers for toxic PAHs, carrying them into soft body tissues and bloodstreams which larger particulates can’t reach.
Thanks to EPA action, toxic emissions such as mercury and lead have been greatly reduced in the last 20 years. Yet, still more action is needed to address the toxicity of petroleum products. Worldwide, air pollution is still the cause of 7 million deaths per year, according to the World Health Organization. In the United States, millions live, work, or go to school in close proximity to clogged highways; others aren’t necessarily immune. Researchers have even found high levels of tailpipe emissions at intersections in residential neighborhoods. Ultra-fine particles have been linked to higher incidence rates of autism, asthma, and ADHD. Developing fetuses are particularly vulnerable -- PAHs have been found in the cord blood of pregnant women living near congested roadways in New York City.
Luckily, according to Pearce, we already have a simple solution to address the toxicity of gasoline aromatics. In 1990, Congress passed the Clean Air Act Amendments, which “directed the EPA … to reduce the dangerous chemical additives in gasoline,” and included a reduction in aromatics due to their already proven health risks. To date, this element of the law has not been enacted. While Pearce notes that at the time, “EPA’s options … were limited and cost-effective substitutes did not exist.” However, today many options are available to regulators, including clean burning, high octane biofuels.
The use of biofuel blends would have several benefits in addition to providing an improvement in public health, including decreased gasoline costs, and reduced reliance on imported petroleum products. The oil industry has waged a well-funded campaign against renewable fuels, but saying no to these special interests and harmful products is critical to improving public health and clearing the air that we all breathe.
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