Leaded gas has benefits but creates health risks

NASCAR officials say the use of unleaded fuel would lead to blown engines.
PHILADELPHIA -- As a frequent spectator at NASCAR races, Jerry Polis is well acquainted with the roar of engines and the pungent scent of racing exhaust.
"You can smell the fumes," said Polis, 58, of Oreland, Pa., a go-kart and drag racer from years ago. "To me, that's part of racing."
But there is one part of racing that NASCAR would be better off without, health officials say. It's a gasoline additive that enhances performance but was banned from regular cars years ago: lead.
In 2000, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, calling leaded gasoline a potential risk for racing employees and even spectators, asked NASCAR to start looking for an alternative.
NASCAR officials, who have seen their sport grow from its southern roots into a national phenomenon, say they are working with Philadelphia-based Sunoco, the association's official fuel supplier, to find a replacement. But for now, they say, the toxic additive is needed to lubricate engines.
Lead causes brain damage in children and can cause other problems in adults, such as kidney trouble, impotence and fatigue.
The EPA has not measured lead levels in pit-crew workers or racing spectators. And in a limited study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, little to no lead was detected in air samples taken at a Tennessee racetrack in 2000.
But last year, Georgia health officials made a troubling discovery.
When a toddler was measured with dangerously high levels of lead in his blood in a routine screening, officials were puzzled because he lived in a newer house without lead-based paint, the most common source of lead exposure in children.
Indirect exposure
The answer was a surprise, said Stic Harris, acting head of the state's lead poisoning-prevention program. His father was an aviation mechanic who worked with propeller planes -- the other type of vehicle for which leaded gasoline is still allowed in the United States.
The father often cleaned fuel injectors with a wire brush, and would return home for lunch and feed the boy without changing his clothes or otherwise properly cleaning up, Harris said.
The boy had more than 30 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood. The federal guideline is 10 micrograms, and recent research by a University of Cincinnati scientist suggests that brain damage occurs even below that level.
The EPA began phasing out leaded gasoline in regular cars in 1975. By 1985, leaded fuel was down to about 40 percent of sales, and in 1996 was banned altogether. Leaded gasoline is still permitted in some countries in Asia and Africa.
EPA officials often call the removal of lead from gasoline one of the biggest public-health success stories of the last few decades.
Racing gas exception
Because of a special exemption passed by Congress, the agency has no authority to ban lead from racing gasoline. But that doesn't mean the EPA can't lean on NASCAR to change, said Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, a Washington-based nonprofit organization.
"I tend to think that NASCAR is largely dragging its leaden feet, and partly because the government is not pushing them," O'Donnell said.
Officials of NASCAR -- whose race attendance has risen from 5.3 million in 1995 to 6.8 million in 2004, a 28 percent increase -- say they are researching new alternatives. But for now, the use of unleaded fuel would make the cars' engines blow out, they said.
The wear and tear on a high-powered racing engine during a 500-mile race is equivalent to driving a regular car 100,000 miles, said Gary Nelson, NASCAR's vice president of research and development.
The lead additive lubricates the surface between an engine valve and its valve "seat." The seat is a circular piece of metal that performs the critical function of drawing heat away from the valve, said Glenn Feiste, a former engine builder who now supervises a technician-training program at the NASCAR Technical Institute in Mooresville, N.C.
Use of unleaded gas would require a different valve design, among other changes, Feiste said.
Besides lubrication, leaded gas also enables greater compression by engine pistons, allowing for more efficiency and power, Nelson said. He said researchers were making progress in finding an alternative to leaded gas and hoped to have an answer soon.
"When you are going to come up with a cure for a certain problem, it takes a series of inventions in many cases, and the right ingredients coming together to make it happen," Nelson said.
Not all race cars use leaded gasoline. Indy 500 cars run on methanol, for example, but that also is a potential health issue for racing crews.
"There's risk you have no matter what," said Greg Steadman, crew chief for the NASCAR car driven by Jeff Green for Petty Enterprises. "It doesn't matter to us."

Don't Miss a Story

Sign up for our newsletter to receive daily news directly in your inbox.