Health & Welfare: Put This in Your Tailpipe!


September had come before we reached the Salt Lake, which we struck at its northern extremity.…Indian fires obscured mountains and valleys in a dense smoky atmosphere so that we could not see for any considerable distance.
—John Bidwell, pioneer on the first covered-wagon train to California, 1841

Considerable controversy surrounds the question how to cost-effectively control pollutants that may be hazardous to a small fraction of the population. Airborne lead, for example, might be a problem for some children. On the other hand, the expensive burden of regulation to control the lead content of gasoline has had a seriously negative effect on the automobile industry, and nearly a million barrels per day of extra oil must be imported to make up for substantial inefficiencies in the refining and use of un-leaded and low-lead gas. Less-expensive alternatives have not been explored in the United States, even though lead in gasoline is generally unrestricted in Europe.

Inner-city whites have much lower lead levels than do inner-city blacks. Yet both groups breathe the same air, and rural blacks and whites have roughly comparable lead levels. So we must conclude that the principal lead hazard to inner-city blacks is not airborne lead from gasoline. In our opinion, much more concentrated sources of lead—the lead paint and lead water pipes found in many old buildings—are the most likely causes of the large difference in inner-city white versus black lead burdens. Figures from the federal Centers for Disease Control do show a roughly 20 percent decrease in inner-city black lead levels over the past decade while the change for inner-city whites is considerably smaller. The CDC has concluded that the decrease for blacks is due to gasoline-lead restrictions, but this conclusion is not supported by the CDC's own data on inner-city whites. Improved housing (which may be as simple as painting over old lead paint) of inner-city blacks is a more plausible, though unproved, explanation.

Vitamin C is quite effective, at doses of over a gram a day, in keeping lead and other heavy metals in solution in the bloodstream so they can be excreted in the urine rather than being deposited in the bones and brain. Distributing vitamin C to all inner-city schoolchildren would be effective whatever the real source of lead and would be far more cost-effective than the present approach of restricting lead in gasoline.

Vitamin C and EDTA (a powerful chelating agent) make a potent combination that is much more effective than EDTA alone in removing lead from the brain. Those who have already been harmed by exposure to high lead levels can be effectively treated for it. (CAUTION: EDTA should be administered only by a physician experienced in its use.) Although the government may never adopt the nutritional approach of preventing lead accumulation with vitamin C, this is something you can do for yourself!

Control of automobile hydrocarbon emissions is another example of a regulatory disaster. Again, the costs are immense and the pollution problem is not solved. A recent study found that the largest potentially controllable source of hydrocarbons in Los Angeles basin is not cars but asphalt road paving and patching! The Environmental Protection Agency does not even control this source of hydrocarbons. It would cost less overall to use more-expensive concrete paving or epoxy composition patches to reduce hydrocarbons than to try to control automobile emissions or other sources. Present EPA standards require that hydrocarbons emitted by autos be less than those arising from a typical suburban lawn or even those produced by a typical cow in digestion!

EPA acceptable ozone levels are exceeded in many places that do not have an air pollution problem—for example, the top of Mt. Whitney, where the ozone is created by solar ultraviolet radiation. Another example: during airline flights, exposure to ozone can be hazardous, especially to persons with pulmonary problems such as emphysema. At lower altitudes, high levels of ozone can be caused by the interaction of ultraviolet radiation with hydrocarbons produced by plants. Indeed, Los Angeles could not meet the EPA's ambient air standards even if all use of fossil fuels were prohibited; the destruction of most of its plant life would also be required. Must we destroy the environment to protect it?

The EPA's automotive carbon-monoxide standards cost a great deal of gasoline, money, and performance, but they help only a very few inner-city people who have serious (generally smoking-induced) lung diseases, particularly those who continue to overload themselves with carbon monoxide by further smoking. These stringent carbon-monoxide standards also benefit some vehicular tunnel guards who work in a few of the older, poorly ventilated tunnels. Thus, billions of dollars are spent every year to subsidize the largely voluntary health problems (the risks to the lungs of smoking have been known for decades) of a relatively few people.

Pollution controls, of course, have more to do with political considerations than with science—that is, what people believe rather than what is true. It has been proposed, for example, that Congress pass a law requiring the addition of "consumer" and "labor" members to the "scientific advisory" board of the EPA.

One result of the EPA's hydrocarbon and other auto-emission controls is widespread flouting of the regulations. Mass magazines for car enthusiasts openly explain how to get around these laws, even telling drivers frankly how to break them by switching engines and other techniques. We ourselves have put lead additives into our gas tanks to overcome the problem of low performance by high-performance engines fueled by low-octane unleaded gasoline. There has been a resurgence of sales of late '60s and early '70s "muscle cars," which give much higher performance and much greater collision protection than the present joyless "econoboxes." Although sales of the econoboxes have been poor, auto manufacturers make them in large numbers to meet a federally mandated average mileage figure for the total production run of their vehicles. One hopeful sign is the return of auto makers to racing. Some of the Chrysler Corp. ads (such as those for the Dodge Charger) emphasize acceleration. In other ads, speeds above 55 miles per hour are described with relish. "You're doing 110, and you have one gear to go!" says one of Ford's Mustang commercials.

The EPA's budget is now over $1 billion, despite efforts by the Reagan administration and ex-administrator Anne Burford to put a damper on its expansion. There is, however, nothing for which "money is no object." Money is always limited, while the uses to which it can be put are virtually unlimited. The EPA might be useful if its funds were used strictly to conduct research into the causes of pollution. Politicians find it notoriously easy to spend other people's money on their pet theories, regardless of whether they are supported by the facts.

In our opinion, the 1974 automotive emission standards are more than adequate, having reduced hydrocarbon emissions by a factor of 10 from uncontrolled cars, along with very large reductions in nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide. Indeed, a good case could be made that even the 1974 carbon-monoxide limit is too stringent. The currently required further factor-of-10 reduction (for emissions cut to 100 times less than from uncontrolled cars) is not a cost-effective way to protect health. Far greater health benefits could be purchased with these resources—for example, by spending this money on biomedical records or even providing "free" tune-ups for motorists; Society of Automotive Engineers Paper No. 710069 shows that a single fouled spark plug increases emissions six times.

There are many ways to reduce pollution and its health hazards. But not every way is cost-effective, and in the regulatory approach favored by the government and by many environmental groups, this fact has been ignored.

Durk Pearson and Sandy Shaw are consulting scientists and authors of Life Extension (Warner Books).