Critics assail NASCAR for burning leaded gas
By JOAN LOWY
Scripps Howard News Service
NASCAR is under fire from environmentalists for using leaded gasoline
more than six years after the Environmental Protection Agency asked the
stock car racing industry to switch to unleaded.
"By permitting the continued use of lead, your organization may be
putting millions of spectators and nearby residents at unnecessary risk
of suffering serious health effects," the environmental group Clean Air
Watch said in a recent letter to NASCAR Chairman Brian France.
"Because of the clear public health threat, lead is being eliminated from
gasoline throughout most of the world," the letter said. "If Kazakhstan
can eliminate lead from gasoline, why can't NASCAR?"
The elimination of lead in gasoline in the United States in the 1970s and
1980s and in the rest of the world in more recent years is considered one
of the great public health victories of the 20th century. Lead levels in
the blood of U.S. children have dropped dramatically as a result.
Blood lead concentrations of less than 10 parts per million have been
shown to permanently diminish the mental capacity of children. Studies
have also found an association between low-level lead exposure and
criminal behavior, hearing loss and difficulty in metabolizing vitamin D.
High level exposure can result in convulsions and death.
In 1990, Congress exempted the aviation and racing industries from EPA's
power to regulate the lead content of gasoline. The aviation industry
also still uses leaded gasoline, although the Federal Aviation
Administration is conducting research into an alternative fuel for
The EPA has been trying to persuade NASCAR to voluntarily switch to
unleaded fuel since at least 1998. (Formula One race cars such as those
driven in the Indianapolis 500 use methanol, rather than gasoline.)
After consulting with the EPA, NASCAR tested unleaded gasoline in some of
its races in 1998 and 1999.
NASCAR has "looked into and will continue to look into making the switch
to unleaded," but has not been able to find an alternative additive to
lead, which lubricates engine valves, NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston
"Without being able to keep the values lubed, the engines don't work as
well and there would be continual problems," Posten said. "We just have
not been able to find a solution."
Lead particles from auto exhaust can stay aloft for as long as 10 days
and travel many miles from their source, the EPA said in a 2002 report.
More than 3.5 million people attend national races every year.
"The remaining uses of gasoline containing alkyl-lead, particularly for
race cars and airplanes, potentially puts certain subpopulations at
risk," the EPA said. "These subpopulations include residents,
particularly children, near sources such as racetracks and general
aviation airports; fuel attendants, racing crew staff, and spectators."
In 1998, about 331,000 pounds of lead-based anti-knock fluid "were used
to serve the NASCAR industry," the EPA report said. The figure, which
comes from the lead industry, is the only estimate available since the
government no longer collects data on the production and sale of leaded
gasoline, the report said.
On the Net: www.cleanairwatch.org
(E-mail Joan Lowy at LowyJ(at)shns.com.)