Focus on lead’s dangers is a reminder of how far we’ve come with gasoline

It’s hard to believe that in 2016, we’re still talking about the need to keep children away from lead.

The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has reminded us of the devastating effects lead can have on the human body, especially on the brains of children: Even small amounts of the neurotoxin can reduce speech development, increase hyperactivity and lower IQs.


Hauling bottled water in Flint, Michigan.

“So you and I as adults, if we ingest lead in some way or other — paint, or drinking water in Flint — it would be bad,” says Fuel Freedom Foundation president Joe Cannon. “We could actually get really sick. But our body has a way to deal with lead. But lead bio-accumulates in children, and so the kids, what happens is, they can’t get rid of the effects.”

Lead used to be all around us: in the paint on the walls, and particularly as an additive in gasoline. Beginning in the 1920s, lead became widely used as an additive to reduce “knocking” in engines, which is caused by improper combustion of the fuel in a vehicle’s cylinders. That could lead to poor performance and even engine damage. Engineers at GM found that lead coated the valves in engines and increased the octane rating in gasoline, which delayed ignition of the gasoline and reduced knock. The higher the octane rating in a fuel, the more efficiently it burns, and the fewer tailpipe emissions produced.

Gasoline is inherently a dirty, inefficient fuel, but by blending in an additive — and lead was a cheap, available option — refiners could arrive at a minimum octane rating. These days, that rating most often is 87; anything below that level could potentially bring knocking, although modern engines do a better job of preventing this. Anyone alive in the ’60s or ’70s might remember ads for fuels and additives that promised to eliminate “knocking and pinging.”

Despite the known detrimental effects of lead particles in the air from combusted gasoline, lead stayed in gasoline for decades. In the 1970s, in the years immediately after the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air Act, rules were passed to gradually get rid of lead in gasoline. But when Ronald Reagan swept into office in 1981, “deregulation” of many industries became a mantra. The lead industry and refiners pushed back against plans to “phase down” lead levels in gasoline. That phase-down was scheduled to be blocked.

Thanks to CannonJoe-Cannon and others in the early 1980s, lead resumed its path of obsolescence. Cannon was then the acting associate administrator of the EPA’s Office of Planning and Resource Management, serving in the Reagan administration from 1981 to 1985.

“My initial involvement was, I looked at the rule [to block the phase-down], started looking at the studies, talked to a lot of scientists,” Cannon said. “And realized, ‘No, we can’t get rid of this regulation.’ ”

Cannon first persuaded the White House’s Office of Management and Budget to halt the rule that would have blocked the phase-down. “The second step was, we have this lead phase-down, let’s get rid of [lead] altogether. Let’s just phase it out to zero,” Cannon said.

Lead was finally removed entirely from the nation’s gasoline supply in 1996, the culmination of a 25-year-long battle. By that time, the legacy of lead poisoning was such a sensitive issue that many people, including Reagan himself, were happy to recognize the achievement.

“They definitely came around,” Cannon said. “Success has many fathers.”

So what happened next? Gasoline still needed a boost to reach a minimum octane standard to prevent knocking. The successor to lead became MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), a petroleum product that refiners began blending in to so-called reformulated gasoline, which was required in areas with high smog levels. MTBE fell out of favor because of its solubility in water, which ended up contaminating ground water supplies.

lead-oil refinery

A refinery in Salt Lake City.

The next choice as a gasoline additive was BTEX (benzene, toluene, xylene and ethyl-benzene). These compounds, known as aromatics, exist naturally in gasoline. Adding more of them elevated octane levels. But the BTEX Complex, like MTBE, wasn’t great for health either, contributing to “negative developmental, reproductive and immunological responses, as well as cardio-pulmonary effects,” according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.

A better choice for an additive is ethanol, an alcohol fuel that’s been around for decades. Ethanol naturally has a high octane rating: E85 blend, which can be used in some 21 million flex-fuel vehicles, has an octane rating in the mid-’90s, well above premium gasoline, but it’s often much cheaper than premium grade for the consumer. Ethanol produces fewer life-cycle emissions, as well as fewer tailpipe emissions that cause smog, compared with gasoline.

People like Joe Cannon and his colleagues at EPA proved that it’s possible to keep making gasoline cleaner, with benefits for all Americans. Let’s keep going.

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