Change Alley

information, opinion, conversation

Bio-fuel Health Hazard

with 7 comments

Ethanol is promoted as a sustainable, clean-burning and eco-friendly fuel that will reduce pollution and global warming. A study from Stanford University suggests that large-scale moves away from gasoline to ‘alternative’ fuels containing a high proportion of ethanol would lead to an increase in numbers of respiratory-related deaths and hospitalizations.

A series of computer model runs simulated atmospheric conditions throughout the US in 2020, with a special focus on Los Angeles, historically the country’s most polluted ‘airshed’. The models compared the pollutive effect of a vehicle fleet (i.e. all cars, trucks, motorcycles, etc., in the US) fueled by gasoline with that of a fleet powered by E85 (a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline).

E85 vehicles reduce atmospheric levels of two carcinogens, benzene and butadiene, but increase two others, acetaldehyde and formaldehyde. Consequently, cancer rates for E85 are likely to be roughly similar to those for gasoline.

However, E85 significantly increased ozone, a prime ingredient of smog and a factor in decreased lung capacity, inflamed lung tissue, aggravated asthmatic conditions and impaired immune systems. The WHO estimates that 800,000 people die each year worldwide from ozone and other chemicals in smog.

E85 increased ozone-related mortalities in the US by about 200 deaths per year compared to gasoline, with about 120 of those deaths occurring in Los Angeles. This represents increases of 4% nationally, 9% in Los Angeles, above projected ozone-related death rates for gasoline-fueled vehicles in 2020.

We’re all doomed. If they can’t get you one way, they’ll get you another. However, these findings are probably unlikely to influence would-be suicides’ choice of termination scenario.

“Effects of Ethanol (E85) versus Gasoline Vehicles on Cancer and Mortality in the United States” Mark Z. Jacobson, Environmental Science & Technology


Written by Pete Smith

June 23, 2007 at 10:54 am

7 Responses

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  1. I doesn’t smell that good either. One of my enduring memories of being in Brazil was the strange sweet smell resulting from the bio-ethanol used in the cars there.


    June 23, 2007 at 11:47 am

  2. Oh I don’t know, I quite like a sugar rush!

    Excellent photo choice Pete.


    June 23, 2007 at 12:30 pm

  3. I suspect that, once we move to fuel cells, someone will complain about the extra water vapor in the air.

    the Grit

    the Grit

    June 23, 2007 at 7:03 pm

  4. Very possibly Grit. As far as I know, water vapour doesn’t rot your lungs and fuck up your immune system.
    Anyway, I thought you’d be pleased to have another reason to oppose bio-ethanol apart from the fact it trebles the price of grits.
    And if you really think we’ll all be running cars on fuel cells, I suggest you sack your research staff šŸ˜Ž

    Pete Smith

    June 23, 2007 at 9:38 pm

  5. Well water vapour is also a GHG but it’s self-regulating. If we emitted more water vapour into the atmosphere, wouldn’t it simply join the cycle and condense into rain or snow?

    Anyway, it now seems that we need alternative alternatives! It’s all very frustrating and perplexing isn’t it.

    The Renewables Fuel Association tells us that Ethanol actually reduces smog pollution and that the . . . “The American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago credits ethanol-blended reformulated gasoline with reducing smog-forming emissions by 25% since 1990. The American Lung Association of Illinois “is a major proponent of cleaner-burning fuels such as E85 and biodiesel, and other less-polluting means of transportation.

    And just to add to the list of contrary information, you might be interested to read the following review of the Jacobson study written by Gary Z Whitten and (ahem) Smog Reyes:


    June 24, 2007 at 11:11 am

  6. Hi earthpal,
    Here we go again! šŸ˜‰ Whenever research gets published, the air fills with accusations of bad data, flawed logic, unjustified assumptions and faulty statistical analysis. In the words of Buffalo Springfield:
    “There’s battle lines being drawn
    Nobody’s right if everybody’s wrong”
    Certainly, the RFA have a vested interest and an axe to grind. Maybe Professor Jacobson has too, if we look hard enough.
    I just wish people would reference their ‘evidence’. The RFA says:
    ” FACT: The American Lung Association of Metropolitan Chicago credits ethanol-blended reformulated gasoline with reducing smog-forming emissions by 25% since 1990″. Sadly, a search of their website finds no references to ethanol or bio-fuels.
    Ozone, the health factor at the core of Jacobson’s paper, is just one of many causes of smog. A 25% overall reduction in smog-forming emissions may mask an increase in ozone.
    As you say, it’s frustrating and perplexing.

    NB: Smog Reyes isn’t a person, it’s a one-man part-time consultancy outfit of which Gary Z. Whitten is the sole proprietor

    Pete Smith

    June 24, 2007 at 12:02 pm

  7. Hi Pete,

    I’m not opposed to bio-ethanol. I just think making it out of corn is a waste, what with corn being so energy intensive to grow. Heck, I’m looking forward to the day when the local bio-fuel plant will pay good money for my weeds, and if they ever learn how to ferment kudzu I’ll make a fortune šŸ˜‰

    As to fuel cells in cars, why so pessimistic?

    the Grit

    the Grit

    June 24, 2007 at 7:40 pm

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