The Coastal Post - June, 1997

The New Gas—Remedy Or Poison

By Carol Sterritt

Imagine that we live in a world where the environment finally becomes partners with Big Oil and the automotive industry. Where regulations improve the quality of the air we breathe. That these environmental regulations call for re-designing the formula for gasoline. And that this "new gas" does produce less carbon monoxide. Imagine that in fact these regulations took affect one year ago.

Sounds great, right? Well, now imagine that after the fact, after the billion dollar-plus expense of re-tooling every major oil refinery in our state, that the effects of this new gas on human health become increasingly suspect.

Can't happen, you say. Surely somebody out there would insist on creating a scientific body of knowledge about any new gas additive before it was thrown into the mix of the gas we use. Surely in an industry like Big Oil, where hundreds of tests would be run before such a massive change, any new chemical's health effects would be examined. Surely we can all breath easy.

Not so fast, I'm forced to say. In the spring of 1996, a new fuel appeared at the gas pump. It differed from the old gasoline in that its sulfur content had been lowered, and "oxygenates" and control additives had been added to gas. It was hailed by the oil companies as a change that would cause less pollutive emissions.

Yet last month, State Senator Mountjoy had hearings on this new gas. In these hearings, participants ranging from local water chemists to doctors of medicine staked their reputations on the idea that the new gasoline is not a remedy but a poison.

Much of their concern centered on the oxygenate, MTBE. An "oxygenate" is some organic combustible liquid or liquids containing an oxygen atom in their structure. The oxygenate now favored in the design of the "new gas" is methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). Its effect in gasoline is to reduce carbon monoxide in the engine exhaust during startup. It accomplishes this by spinning off its extra oxygen atoms during the car's choke operations. This creates a "leaner" fuel mix. (In a sense, MTBE provides a "chemical" fuel injector system).

Because warm-up takes longer in cold weather, using oxygenates to reduce carbon monoxide emissions is most effective in the winter. This benefit is greatest for older vehicles with carburetors.

Where does MTBE come from? The chemical is derived from methanol and isobutylene with a catalyst assisting the reaction. Isobutylene itself is obtained from butane. Senator Mountjoy's office describes it as a chemical that until last year was mostly a waste product that the oil companies had to pay to have hauled away. Now it is used as a cheap octane booster that helps the oil companies comply with lower carbon monoxide regulations.

MTBE not only reduces the carbon monoxide emissions, it also lowers hydrocarbons and benzines, though to a much less significant level, However, some experts have gone on the record saying that formaldehyde emissions would increase 35 percent, and by the California Air Resource Board's own admission, it is known that due to the new gas, six tons of formaldehyde would enter the air in this state by the year 2000.

Looking at the EPA's own web page for information on MTBE: "Human health effects associated with breathing or otherwise consuming large amounts of MTBE for short periods of time are not known. Laboratory studies show that breathing large amounts of MTBE for short periods of time adversely affects the nervous systems of animals. The effects range from hyperactivity and incoordination to convulsions and unconsciousness. Health effects associated with consuming smaller amounts of MTBE in air causes cancer in animals. The Agency is currently reviewing potential effects of MTBE in humans."

One important consideration that seems to have been overlooked by the oil companies when they formulated their new gas, is the gas station policies prevalent in our state. Unlike our neighbor Oregon to the north, where consumers are by law freed from the task of pumping their own fuel, our state encourages self-serve gas stations. In Marin, there are only a handful of full-serve gas pumps. This means that pregnant women are pretty much forced to pump their own gas. At what risk to the health of their unborn child? We don't fully know, but based on animal studies, we can worry that there will be an increase in birth defects and young children inflicted with brain and spinal column tumors.

Addressing MTBE's health effects, Dr. Nachman Brautbar, a clinical medical professor at the University of Southern California, testified at the California Senate hearings, "There is no question that from a medical point of view, this substance should be banned... I would recommend my patients be exposed to low levels of carbon monoxide rather than the carcinogen MTBE."

Joining Braubar in speaking out, Dr. Peter Joseph, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Medicine, said he was finding dramatic increases in childhood asthma cases-from a range of 5 percent to as much as 25 percent of the population as the Philadelphia area was forced to use MTBE-impregnated gasoline during winter months. This doctor stated that he knew of no other reason for the soaring asthma rates. Researchers all over the continent do know that asthma is on the increase (from a base rate of 5 percent to an increase of 6 or 7 percent). The skyrocketing that Dr. Joseph documents is clearly above this level. Do we know for sure that it is MTBE doing this? No. But until studies indicate otherwise, his concerns must be ours.

Chevron Oil Company likes to tout the fact that extensive testing was done before this "new gas" was sold. For this article, test results were examined for eleven to thirteen cars that were placed on dynamometers. Did these tests replicate the actual driving styles of most cars on the road today? Likely not. The cars were run for only 1360 seconds, and at no point did they spend more than thirty seconds in an idling cycle. Most Bay Area commuters would love that type of commute. Many traffic intersections have timed lights of two minute intervals, and cars idle two to three times that amount when traffic is heavy. Many commuters experience rush hour bumper-to-bumper delays for ten or more minutes.

Dave Lesnini of Chevron says that all MTBE in gasoline is burned off-but it may well increase, and due to the poor design of the testing done by CARB's sub-contractor, CARB's tests can neither support nor refute his claim.

The Caldecott Tunnel Study is often cited as a good test of the new fuel mixture. It took place in October of 1994. Like the tests by CARB's sub-contractors, it did not examine car fuel emissions during an idling phase, but only when cars were going 40 to 50 miles per hour. This test did find that carbon monoxide pollution was down. There was insignificant change in the amount of hydrocarbon emissions and in oxides of nitrogen emissions. Formaldehyde was up 30 percent.

The Caldecott Tunnel survey did not examine the emissions at the tail pipe level, but only in the upper ceiling of the tunnel.

Adding to my own worry over the new fuel was the testimony of Dr. Bob Hale, of the Alameda Flood Planning Commission. He stated that the good things attribute to the "new gas" may be the result of the fuel's lower sulfur content, and not the inclusion of MTBE. He spoke of his experience as an advisor to Alameda County's water board. One new worry faced by the board is their increasing awareness of the effect that MTBE is having in the water table. Unlike pure gasoline which is an evaporative, MTBE is water soluble. In the rainfall cycle, it will e going directly into the water that we drink. Already, 17 of the 2,000 wells monitored by the State of California are considered contaminated and non-useable due to MTBE levels-and this after one year of new gas use.

On a consumer level, the new gasoline is a source for car part failure. MTBE is a substance capable of eating away the elastomers in fuel system parts. One fuel pump distributor observes that sales were up dramatically in the first five months of new fuel use.

Big Oil will be hard-pressed to allow any change in its new gas formula. The re-tooling of the refineries for the new gas was enormously expensive. Should new studies on MTBE warrant a full moratorium on this new formula's use, the oil industries will pass on this expense to the consumer.

Tales of asthma increase, dizziness and blackout episodes, and possible cancer links, point to a need for more and better designed studies.

The Department of Health for the state of Alaska has five studies reporting harm by MTBE and growing support for banning the new gas use.

I would urge anyone troubled by their suspicions about the new gas to call or write State Senator Mountjoy's office in Sacramento.