The EPA's Record of Reducing Lead in the Environment

The Environmental Protection Agency's efforts to reduce the level of gasoline lead in the environment has controversial consequences for owners of leaded gasoline-fueled automobiles.

| May/June 1986

January 1, 1986, was a red-letter day for the American public . . . but one that went by largely unnoticed. The first of the year marked a significant milestone in the Environmental Protection Agency's 13-year effort to reduce the level of lead in our environment  

Reducing Gasoline Lead in the Environment

Lead — more specifically, tetraethyl lead (TEL) — has been a component of nearly all gasoline motor fuel since 1923, when it was introduced as an inexpensive antiknock additive. It's also been a primary source of lead contamination, accounting for up to 90% of all airborne lead emissions . . . which eventually find their way into the bloodstreams of humans, where concentrations as low as 10 or 15 micrograms per deciliter of blood (roughly 1-1/2 parts per million by weight) can have harmful effects, especially on children.

If you've read the first part of this article (beginning on page 114 of MOTHER EARTH NEWS No. 97), you already know that the EPA's multi-step lead phasedown program was successful in reducing the level of TEL in gasoline from 2.5 grams per gallon in 1973 to 0.50 grams per leaded gallon (gplg) in July of 1985. The January 1st decrease to 0.10 gplg represents a 96% reduction in the amount of TEL used in motor fuel over that period . . . a noteworthy event to be sure, and one overshadowed only by plans to completely eliminate lead in gasoline by 1988.

But the EPA's actions of reducing lead in the environment have also raised a red flag in the face of the owners of some 20 million pre-1971-72 cars and trucks that were designed to operate on leaded gasoline, and have compelled the agricultural community to lobby the U.8. House of Representatives (unsuccessfully) for exemption from the new requirements under the 1985 farm bill. Moreover, the program has caused no little consternation among users of gasoline powered generators, lawn mowers, garden implements, and outdoor equipment . . . much of which, like older autos and tractors, relies on lead in the fuel not only to control detonation, but to provide a lubricative cushion between the valve faces and their seats.

The EPA: A Tiger by the Tail

Clearly, the EPA is caught between a rock and a hard place — facing broadsides from a public segment unwilling (and often unable) to bear the economic hardship of replacing costly equipment, while at the same time obligated to serve as the environmental watchdog for the nation as a whole.

To make matters worse, it isn't quite clear at this point what the extent of damage to older engines might be if they were forced to run on low-lead — or totally leadless — gasoline fuels. Aside from the problem of valve recession (which is closely linked to how the engine is used), destructive detonation caused by insufficient octane levels must be considered as well.

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