On Monday June 2, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took the single largest step to control stationary sources of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other harmful emissions in the nation’s history. It announced a proposed regulation to cut carbon pollution by 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030 from existing power plants.  According to EPA’s own analysis, the Clean Power Plan will avoid between 3,000 to 7,000 premature deaths and close to 150,000 asthma attacks in children as of 2030. The rule will deliver impressive public health and climate benefits, saving between $55 to $93 billion in healthcare costs in the next 15 years.  However, the EPA has many additional harmful emissions to address –  including ultrafine emissions from vehicles.   

A white paper released June 3 by the group Ethanol Across America and authored by David E. Hallberg, the founder of the Renewable Fuels Association, discusses the mounting scientific evidence regarding the impacts to public health from gasoline emissions in urban areas.  Ultra-fine particle (UFP) pollution, measuring 1/1000th of the width of a human hair, is created through the burning of gasoline, particularly gasoline aromatics.  Unlike smog or soot, these UFPs cannot be seen or smelled.   They can travel for miles, and remain suspended in the atmosphere for days or weeks.  They penetrate into buildings and vehicles, and enter into human’s lungs and bloodstream, carrying with them polycyclic aromatic compounds (PAHs).  This toxic brew of UFPs and PAHs has been found to be a risk factor for cancer, cardio-vascular diseases, autism and other behavioral disorders.  UFPs also contribute to the formation of black carbon and ground-level ozone, which contribute to climate change.  Despite the robust evidence that ultra-fine particulates are toxic to those living closest to highways, refineries and busy streets, UFPS are not currently well-regulated or controlled. 

When the EPA removed toxic lead from transportation fuels in 1990 due to health and environmental concerns, it was replaced with petroleum-based aromatics in order to boost the octane levels of gasoline.  Today, approximately 25 to 30 percent of the gasoline mixture is comprised of aromatics. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has discussed the negative health effects of the gasoline aromatic BTEX complex (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene) and in 1990 stated, “benzene is a known carcinogen, one of the worst air toxics. 85% of all benzene in the air we breathe comes from motor vehicle exhaust. Xylene from automobile exhaust in the morning rush hour will form ozone (smog) in the sunlight to choke our lungs by the afternoon trip home. Toluene, another aromatic, usually forms benzene during the combustion process and thus becomes carcinogenic along with benzene in the gasoline.”

Hallberg notes that while President George H.W. Bush signed into law an amendment to the Clean Air Act that would reduce gasoline aromatic content “to the greatest extent achievable,” the EPA has yet to act and is continuing to use flawed models and data. New technology—particularly the use of ethanol through “splash-blending,” or simply adding ethanol to pre-mixed gasoline, would allow for aromatic particulates to be reduced by 45 to 85 percent.  Not only would these technological fixes reduce health impacts and greenhouse gas emissions, but they would also increase vehicle performance, helping the auto industry comply with fuel efficiency and carbon reduction rules, while also reducing costs. The EPA recently announced that it will further investigate the health and environmental impacts of toxic aromatics. According to Hallberg, “at a time when the petroleum industry is spending millions to discredit clean octane products that can be used to protect public health, EPA needs to re-assess their protocols and recognize this growing threat.”

The white paper, Killing Them Softly: Oil Companies and the Public Health Threat of Gasoline Emissions in Urban Areas, is part of an ongoing series being published by the Clean Fuels Foundation’s Ethanol Across America education campaign.

For more information see:

Killing Them Softly: Oil Companies and the Public Health Threat of Gasoline Emissions in Urban Areas, Ethanol Across America

Children Are Likely to Suffer Most from Our Fossil Fuel Addiction, Environmental Health Perspectives

Clean Power Plan Proposed Rule, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency


Authors: Jenifer Collins and Jessie Stolark