Health News Digest

April 3, 2006

Getting the Lead Out—Dumbest Case ScenarioChoke off the lead!

By  Michael D. Shaw

Want an update on the latest Extreme Green fixation? For fans of NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing), a national pastime full of speed, crashes and personal daring, the one flag no driver wants to see (with the exception of the red or black variety) is the banner of fear: Believe it or not, protesters want to ban leaded gasoline from NASCAR competition.

Citing a relationship between leaded fuel and dangerous health effects, activists want NASCAR to use non-leaded gasoline in all official vehicles. Bear in mind, of course, that racing fuel, the kind used in stock car contests, contains lead for an obvious reason—it works! High performance automobiles would probably not exceed 200 miles-per-hour on ordinary gasoline, the sort available at every road stop, express station, and convenience store across the country. And yet, this war against science and common sense continues unabated.

By pressuring NASCAR, and by circulating its accusations through friendly (if clueless) media outlets, organizations like Clean Air Watch argue that leaded gasoline puts “millions of spectators and nearby residents at unnecessary risk of suffering serious health effects.”

Let us concede a simple truth: Lead is poisonous…in sufficiently high amounts. As my previous columns clearly emphasize, “The dose makes the poison.” Which is to say, context is essential for any rational discussion of the (purported) connection between chemicals and, in this case, cancer or brain damage. By simply labeling leaded gasoline a dangerous carcinogen, critics miss the point. A mere afternoon’s worth of “exposure” to leaded fuel—in an outdoor arena, where any such ill effects would quickly dissipate—hardly qualifies as a toxic load. This scenario does not even match the classic hypothetical environmental activists typically envision.

Most rational commentators agree that lead poisoning involves chronic ingestion of lead-contaminated dust from deteriorating lead-based paint that is chipping, peeling, or flaking in older homes in poor condition. This situation, insofar as it exists at all today, is restricted to residents of tenements somehow overlooked by building inspectors for years, or to squatters in structures that have been condemned.

As Steven Milloy of the Cato Institute writes,

“NASCAR fans and the communities surrounding NASCAR race tracks are far removed from such high exposures to lead.”

Not surprisingly, there is zero evidence to suggest that anyone has ever been overexposed to lead because of NASCAR racing. But, why let evidence (or lack of same) stand in the way of junk science?

Moreover, there is scant proof that the current regulation on leaded fuel even matters. Despite the EPA’s self-indulgent press regarding its advocacy of lead-free gasoline causing the large drop in airborne concentrations of the heavy metal, it is quite likely that they flatter themselves.

Scientists who examined sediment cores from New York City’s Central Park dating back 100 years concluded that,

“Incineration of solid waste, rather than leaded gasoline, has been the dominant source of atmospheric lead in New York City, and possibly manly other urban areas during the 20th century.”

Thus, the real factor in getting the lead out of ambient air was the banning or regulation of incineration. Most of that took place before EPA came on the scene.

These radical Greens hope that NASCAR will, in its quest to garner more viewers and increase its presence throughout the country, succumb to pressure about its use of leaded gasoline. Surely, there are safety reasons why auto racing should continue to get its lead exemption. Do we really want stalled engines in the Daytona 500?

With science, safety, and right reason on its side, NASCAR should not surrender to this form of glorified harassment. NASCAR would be well served to ignore veiled threats of bad publicity and danger to the public. It is far more likely that this, the latest screwball precept of our radical Green friends, will sputter and stall.

On to the checkered flag!