ENVIRONMENT

Lead tigers in the tank

Val Ross January 17 1983
ENVIRONMENT

Lead tigers in the tank

Val Ross January 17 1983

Lead tigers in the tank

ENVIRONMENT

Val Ross

The gleaming white pumps of the Beddington Co-op service station on Calgary’s Simons Valley Drive brim with four kinds of fuel. “But this one’s our number 1 best seller,” says station manager Ron Goosen, pointing beyond the regular and premium unleaded gas and the diesel fuel to the pump of leaded gas. It is a fuel that was supposed to disappear throughout the 1970s under a barrage of environmentalist-sponsored gas-content laws and car-emission regulations. Still, despite the continuing concerns about leaded gas—its links to toxic effects, including damage to the human nervous system and brain—the demand for it remains strong. As Goosen points out, “A lot of the newest cars take it, and people seem to be going back to it.” For that reason, Environment Minister John Roberts is now considering a formal phase-out and later this month he will receive an Environment Canada report that follows a two-year-long study of the social and environmental impacts of an eventual ban on leaded gas.

The debate over leaded gas is as heated as ever and not just in Canada. Britain recently imposed tighter ceilings on lead content. But, in spite of new and alarming research linking leaded gas even more closely to health problems, last month the European Parliament refused to follow Britain’s lead. And in the United States a Congress committee declined to act on a bid by

U.S. fuel refiners to abolish lead-content standards. But, says Lester Brown, special assistant to the congressional Committee on the Environment: “They [the refiners] will be back again next year. The fight is far from over.” Exhaust from leaded gas has been belching out of tail pipes since 1923, when refiners first began adding tetraethyl lead to gas to boost octane levels (the higher the octane, the more efficient and smoother the combustion in the engine). Currently, Canadian standards permit 3.5 g (grams) per imperial gallon—significantly higher than the United States’ 1.1 g per U.S. gallon (or 1.3 g per imperial gallon). Unleaded gas

has only been available commercially since 1975, fuelling cars equipped with catalytic converters (emission-control devices that were designed to reduce other pollutants). If over several months leaded gas is poured into such cars—about three-quarters of those now on U.S. roads and a third of those driven in Canada—it may ruin the converters, and replacements cost about $500. In all cars, leaded gas wears down exhaust systems and halves the life of spark plugs. Regardless of its long-term costs, consumers keep tanking up with it because of its short-term price advantage: as much as two cents a litre (12 cents a gallon less than unleaded). According to Environment Canada, as many as one in five Ontario drivers of lead-intolerant cars deliberately misfuel with leaded; in Western Canada the figure may be as high as 50 per cent.

A key issue in the debate is the conservation advantage leaded gas offers: it takes less crude to produce. According to Du Pont Canada Inc., a major manufacturer of tetraethyl lead, the energy penalty of extra crude and extra refining can be as much as five per cent. Assuming a price of $42 per barrel for imported crude, Du Pont claims that Canada could have saved $200 million in 1980 if all gas produced here had been leaded. But Martin Rivers, director general of Environment Canada’s air pollution control directorate, disputes the industry’s figures. “Unleaded only requires 0.6 per cent more crude,” he insists. “The extra is because refineries offer fuel, for customer satisfaction, at higher octane levels than cars require. That marketing decision is not a technical necessity.”

The other major hot spot in the debate is the actual price difference between fuels. Last month the Toronto Star broke the story of a “secret” consultant’s report to Environment Canada, claiming that consumers were be-

_ ing “gouged”; the true

price difference should only be about .44 cents a litre (two cents a gallon). Industry spokesmen swiftly denounced the leaked story as a government bid to tell the private sector how to price its products. But also calling for an end to the price gap are consumers and such environmental groups as Pollution Probe. They argue that the price gap not only tempts drivers to misfuel but also tempts dishonest retailers to “fuel-switch” the cheaper ? leaded gas and charge the *2 higher unleaded price.

What drives the in-

dustry to keep leaded prices low is the need to keep demand high. As Don Coghill, external affairs adviser for Esso Petroleum Canada, puts it, “Ending the price difference is Environment Canada’s ploy to suppress demand.” Should demand for leaded slacken or new regulations phase it out, the capital costs of converting refineries could be dauntingly high.

Underlying all the issues is the fundamental debate over just how dangerous leaded gas really is. David Henderson, Du Pont’s manager of fluorocarbon and petroleum chemicals, points out that ambient lead levels have been declining throughout the 1970s to 45 per cent of the standard minimums currently accepted as safe. Asks Henderson: “So what’s all the fuss?” What worries health officials is that, although other sources of lead poisoning are frequently cited—paint chips, proximity to smelters and battery plants—63 per cent of all lead in Canada’s environment still comes from car emissions. Lead poisoning occurs when lead from any source accumulates in the body, and recent studies now suggest that children’s bodies retain lead when exposed to levels previously deemed safe. University of Pittsburgh professor Herbert Needleman studied children’s baby teeth and found a close correlation between lower IQ scores and unpleasant character traits—irritability, distractedness—and levels of lead accumulated from a variety of sources in relatively low-lead environments. Meanwhile, studies of children in 60 U.S. cities by the Centers for Disease Control made another striking link: the mean level in children’s blood declined by 26 per cent from 1977 to 1980, and, according to the CDC, the only major change in the environment during that period was a 30-per-cent reduction in the consumption of leaded gas.

While deliberating whether or not to retain leaded gas, the federal government will be hampered by its past failure to admit to the seriousness of the problem. There are no published figures on the incidence of lead toxicity in Canada, and Ottawa’s inattentiveness is mirrored by a sorry provincial record of failure to monitor lead-polluting industries. But there are some guidelines available on what the human costs could be: in 1980 the United States spent $971 million on health care and special education for its 22,000 lead-damaged children. Declares Barbara McElgunn, spokesman for the Canadian Association for Children with Learning Disabilities: “Letting any preventable disability occur to our kids through the retention of leaded gas is a cost too enormous to contemplate.” Certainly, for parents like McElgunn, it is a high price to pay for happy motoring.

With Peter Lewis in Brussels.

Peter Lewis