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NASCAR Knocked By Lead-Heads

Environmentalists have blown a gasket over the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing's continued use of leaded gasoline in its stock car races.

Since NASCAR (search) has science and safety on its side, I hope it has the good sense not to cave in to this eco-harassment.

The Clean Air Trust (search) "urged" NASCAR in a Jan. 19 letter to consider the supposedly dire consequences of using leaded fuel: "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, according to the Environmental Protection Agency."

Lead was eliminated from most gasoline in the U.S. during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1990, however, Congress exempted the aviation and racing industries from the lead ban. The exemptions made sense since no one wanted airplanes falling from the sky because of stalled engines and auto racing would only add an insignificant amount of lead to the environment.

NASCAR engines run on a high performance fuel designed exclusively for competition called 110 Leaded Racing Gasoline (search). Not only does the "Official Fuel of NASCAR" make stock cars run better, but its components make it resistant to explosion, which naturally makes things safer for drivers in racing accidents.

In contrast to the sound reasoning used to permit racing cars to use leaded gasoline, the Clean Air Trust drags out the usual myths about lead in its attack on NASCAR.

"According to the EPA, lead causes damage to the kidneys, liver, brain and nerves, and other organs," claims the letter. What it omitted mentioning was that you would have to be exposed to unusually high levels of lead for it to affect your health.

The classic lead poisoning (search) scenario involves chronic ingestion of lead-contaminated dust from deteriorating lead-based paint that is chipping, peeling or flaking in older homes in poor condition. NASCAR fans and the communities surrounding NASCAR racetracks are far removed from such high exposures to lead. There is no evidence that anyone has ever been overexposed to lead because of NASCAR racing.

As toxicologists say, "it's the dose that makes the poison." Exposures to low levels of lead are not known to cause health effects.

The Clean Air Trust nevertheless alleged, "Even low levels of lead damage the brain and nerves in fetuses and young children, resulting in learning deficits and lowered IQ." Not only is this mythical assertion still unsupported by any solid science more than 25 years after it was first publicized, it actually originated in the shadowy world of scientific misconduct.

"Removing lead from the gasoline used by highway vehicles is one of the great public health success stories in recent times. Because of the ban on lead in highway gasoline, the EPA reports that levels of lead in the air have dropped by 94 percent since 1980," the Clean Air Trust writes.

There is little doubt that there is much less lead in the environment due to air pollution controls — even though we use more lead today than ever before. But it's possible that the effect of banning leaded gasoline has been oversold.

Scientists examining sediment cores from New York City's Central Park Lake dating back 100 years concluded in 1999 that "incineration of solid waste, rather than leaded gasoline, has been the dominant source of atmospheric lead in New York City, and possibly many other urban areas during the 20th century."

"Lead deposition rates to the atmosphere reached a peak from the late 1930s to early 1960s, decades before maximum emissions from combustion of leaded gasoline," according to an article published in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Moreover, regardless of the reason for lower levels of lead in the environment, it's much less clear that public health has benefited commensurately from the decrease in ambient lead levels.

Though surveys indicate that blood lead levels have dramatically declined over the last few decades, I could not find a single study reporting — or even estimating — precisely what health benefits have been produced or what health problems have been avoided by the reported lower blood lead levels.

No doubt the Clean Air Trust hopes to exploit NASCAR's immense popularity and both the public's tendency to overreact to health scares in order to gain media attention and facilitate fundraising.

As the stock car racing season has just kicked off, I'm sure NASCAR won't be too happy if eco-activist protesters start showing up at races wearing gas masks and chanting "Get the lead out!" and "NASCAR pollution lowers kids' IQs!"

Assuming the protesters survive amid the loyal stock car racing fans who are unlikely to appreciate their disruption, let's hope NASCAR isn't the next brand-sensitive business to surrender to junk science-fueled eco-activist harassment and extortion.

Steven Milloy publishes JunkScience.com and CSRwatch.com, is adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, and is the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).