NASCAR is under fire from environmentalists for using leaded gasoline more than six years after the Environmental Protection Agency asked the stock car racing industry to switch to unleaded.
"By permitting the continued use of lead, your organization may be putting millions of spectators and nearby residents at unnecessary risk of suffering serious health effects," the environmental group Clean Air Watch said in a recent letter to NASCAR Chairman Brian France.
"Because of the clear public health threat, lead is being eliminated from gasoline throughout most of the world," the letter said. "If Kazakhstan can eliminate lead from gasoline, why can't NASCAR?"
The elimination of lead in gasoline in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s and in the rest of the world in more recent years is considered one of the great public health victories of the 20th century. Lead levels in the blood of U.S. children have dropped dramatically as a result.
Blood lead concentrations of less than 10 parts per million have been shown to permanently diminish the mental capacity of children. Studies have also found an association between low-level lead exposure and criminal behavior, hearing loss and difficulty in metabolizing vitamin D. High level exposure can result in convulsions and death.
In 1990, Congress exempted the aviation and racing industries from EPA's power to regulate the lead content of gasoline. The aviation industry also still uses leaded gasoline, although the Federal Aviation Administration is conducting research into an alternative fuel for airlines.
The EPA has been trying to persuade NASCAR to voluntarily switch to unleaded fuel since at least 1998. (Formula One race cars such as those driven in the Indianapolis 500 use methanol, rather than gasoline.)
After consulting with the EPA, NASCAR tested unleaded gasoline in some of its races in 1998 and 1999.
NASCAR has "looked into and will continue to look into making the switch to unleaded," but has not been able to find an alternative additive to lead, which lubricates engine valves, NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston said.
"Without being able to keep the values lubed, the engines don't work as well and there would be continual problems," Posten said. "We just have not been able to find a solution."
Lead particles from auto exhaust can stay aloft for as long as 10 days and travel many miles from their source, the EPA said in a 2002 report. More than 3.5 million people attend national races every year.
"The remaining uses of gasoline containing alkyl-lead, particularly for race cars and airplanes, potentially puts certain subpopulations at risk," the EPA said. "These subpopulations include residents, particularly children, near sources such as racetracks and general aviation airports; fuel attendants, racing crew staff, and spectators."
In 1998, about 331,000 pounds of lead-based anti-knock fluid "were used to serve the NASCAR industry," the EPA report said. The figure, which comes from the lead industry, is the only estimate available since the government no longer collects data on the production and sale of leaded gasoline, the report said.