Is any chemical a bad chemical?

By Joseph Perkins
Copyright 1999 San Diego Union-Tribune
February 19, 1999

Remember the dioxin scare? Back in the early 1980s, the Environmental Protection Agency pronounced it the deadliest chemical known to humanity. By 1991, however, the federal government was forced to admit that it was wrong; that dioxin was virtually harmless.

"If it (dioxin) is a carcinogen, it's a very weak carcinogen," conceded Dr. Vernon Houk, the federal official who needlessly ordered the evacuation of an entire town in 1983 that was supposedly contaminated by the chemical.

How about the radon scare? In the early 1990s, the EPA calculated that the radioactive gas -- to which an unsuspecting individual may be exposed when he or she takes his or her daily shower, the public was warned -- was responsible for as many as 30,000 lung cancer deaths each year.

Yet, as it turns out, none of the cities or states or regions of the country with high readings of radon (which is produced by decaying natural deposits of uranium) have higher-than-normal rates of lung cancer. Moreover, not one lung cancer patient has ever been identified whose illness has been positively attributed to radon.

Now we have the MTBE scare. Methyl tertiary-butyl ether is a gasoline additive. The chemical has been around since 1979, when it was initially added to fuel to increase octane, but the Exxons and Mobils and ARCOS and Chevrons have greatly increased its use over the past decade.

That's because MTBE is what is known as an "oxygenate." Cars and trucks fueled by oxygenated gas emit less smog-producing compounds from their tailpipes than those using the old-fashioned non-oxygenated gas.

It is for that reason that a 1990 amendment of the Clean Air Act required oxygenated gas to be used in smoggy Los Angeles, in San Diego (which has the misfortune of being downwind from the City of Angels) and eight other metropolitan areas throughout the country reeling which, at the time, were suffering from poor air quality.

And since 1995, when service stations throughout California began selling gasoline reformulated with MTBE, the oxygenate is credited with reducing carbon monoxide pollution by roughly 10 percent in Los Angeles and San Diego, much to the better health of the 10 million or so inhabitants of Southern California's two largest metropolises.

Alas, this does not sit well with the environmental left. Not because they are against cleaner air. But because they simply don't like chemicals, like MTBE, no matter how beneficial they may be. They believe, as an article of faith, that chemicals are bad; are injurious to health. And that the chemical industry is unholy and its executives evil.

An outfit that calls itself Oxybusters is trying to get MTBE banned by any and all means possible. It claims that the gasoline additive is a cancer-causing carcinogen. And they direly warn that not only is this killer chemical being disgorged into the air by millions of cars and trucks, it also is leeching into the underground water supply of a number of municipalities, imperiling the health of their unsuspecting residents. Oxybusters would have the Shells and Texacos and ARCOs and Amocos stop using MTBE in favor of corn-based ethanol (which places them in an eyebrow-raising alliance with the powerful corporate interest Archer Daniels Midland). However, the oil companies prefer MTBE to ethanol because it's cheaper and easier to produce and transport.

And though the EPA tried to force the oil companies to use ethanol anyway to oxygenate their gasoline, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled four years ago that, while the regulatory agency had "the authority to set a standard" for cleaner gas, it could not "mandate the manner of compliance or the precise formula" for the fuel.

This should have been the end of the MTBE debate. But Oxybusters and their confederates on the environmental left would not give up. Since the courts wouldn't allow EPA to do their bidding -- that is, to ban MTBE -- they turned to Capital Hill. And last month, California's senior senator, Dianne Feinstein, obligingly proposed a bill that would effectively ban the use of MTBE in California. Meanwhile, a similar measure was proposed in the House by Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Imperial Beach.

Feinstein and Bilbray obviously haven't examined this issue carefully. Otherwise it would be clear to them that the campaign against MTBE is just as scientifically unsound, as contrary to the public interest, as the aforementioned alarmist campaigns against dioxin and radon.

Indeed, a mere two months ago, a scientific panel commissioned by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment concluded that there was no evidence that MTBE poses a cancer threat to human beings.

As to the problem of MTBE leeching into municipal water supplies, that has nothing whatsoever to do with the chemical's properties and everything to do with the failure of oil companies to keep their underground storage facilities properly maintained. It should also be mentioned that, when these underground gas tanks leak, the biggest danger to the water supply is not MTBE, but benzene and toluene, two indisputable cancer-causing chemicals.

MTBE has done much to improve air quality in Southern California and other smoggy, car-infested regions of the country. It would be ludicrous for lawmakers to accede to the wishes of scare-mongering environmentalist crusaders who seek to ban the oxygenate, not because it poses a scientifically-proven threat to human health, but simply because these latter day Luddites never met a chemical they liked.

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