Articles from Safety Fast! (June 1996)

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After months (years even!), of ever increasing irritation reading your comments "informing" us that unleaded (4 star), and having put pen to paper several times with the intention of countering your campaign, I am at last doing so in response to your request (P.54 S.F! March 1996) for " . . .readers comments on this wide ranging topic . . . .". I hope that this article may bring a little more reason to bear on the subject as it has, after all, been a completely one-sided campaign on your part, and which I believe has included a considerable amount of ill-informed, misleading and un-qualified comment. If I may quote from your Editorial of February 1995, admittedly on a slightly comment " . . . will only be obtained by rational discussion between moderate advocates, and by ignoring shrill cries of single issue fanatics . . .". Dare I say it, perhaps, emotion is clouding your arguments and a correct scientific basis should be used to determine what is genuinely best for the environment as a whole (scrap all cars perhaps?), and not just that part of it which attracts the interest of particular pressure groups.

I will admit immediately to having no particular preference from the environmental point of view, to either leaded or unleaded - they are probably both as noxious as each other - but I have a "cat" on my Saab, so obviously use unleaded. If I had hardened valve seats etc in my P-type, I would probably use it in that as well, if only because I object to the sort of comments you make in your Editorial (June 1995) ie . . . "I don't want to hear of uncatalysed M.G.s running on unleaded petrol" . . .!

I will also admit to having a certain amount of bias (or perhaps it may be expresses as having a little more background information), as I happened to be the Project Manager responsible for providing the facilities for the introduction of the first (modern) unleaded petrol (Esso) to the UK back in 1987/88. That same oil company happens to pay my pension now, so yes, I suppose I am biased, but I also accept that I myself am not fully qualified to know all the answers. My article in "Safety Fast!, in 1988 or thereabouts, entitled "Unleaded Petrol and the Pre-War car", put the subject in context and Mike Allison's article (May 1995) expands on the legislative reasons behind the growth of unleaded - I don't agree entirely with all of Mike's comments, but agree that some of the reasons given by the environmentalists which resulted in the legislation, may leave a bit to be desired. However, the saying is that "what California does today, the world does tomorrow" . . . at the moment California is contemplating legislation for "zero-emissions" cars is electric (forgetting, or ignoring, perhaps where electricity and which in itself is a most inefficient process!). So be careful all you detractors of unleaded - if you make too much noise about how harmful it is then you may finish up without any petrol at all!

To get back to the subject more specifically - at the end of Mike's article, your editorial comment rather destroys your own argument against unleaded if you think carefully about the words you wrote ie " . . .4 star petrol has so little lead in it these days . . ." Dead right, it hasn't got much! The lead has been progressively reduced since the late 1970s from 0.8 grams/litre down to the current maximum of 0.15 grams/litre. We should all know by now that organic lead compounds in petrol, help to raise the Octane number, prevent pinking or pre-ignition, and thus enable higher compression ratios to be used and so develop more power. The RON (Research Octane Number) for a petrol is a measure of it's anti-knock properties. Premium leaded (the normal stuff) has a RON number of 95; leaded petrol (4*) is 97; super unleaded is about 98. As we mentioned above " . . . 4star petrol has so little lead in it these days . . ." - and these days, because 4 star has so little lead in it, both 4 star and unleaded therefore are very very similar in constitution - the addition of lead gives the 4 star a slightly higher RON number. So basically there ain't much difference in the two! They both contain significantly higher proportions of aromatics than the old leaded petrol of 20 years ago, and are "spiked" with butane which increases the volatility (and hence creates some of the problems of vapour locking in older vehicles).

I have left Super Unleaded out of this argument as only very small volumes are involved and I believe there is no real need for this grade. The only car to my knowledge which is specifically designed to run on this is the McLaren F1! To obtain the higher RON rating (from 95 to 98), super unleaded does contain much higher percentages of the aromatic compounds, is more environmentally unfriendly, but I'm sure will die a natural death as it is more expensive to market and distribute in the very small volumes involved (basically it ties up facilities which could be more profitable employed). Having said that, the consumer magazine "Which" concluded recently that "exposure to high levels of atmospheric benzene can cause cancer but the risks associated with benzene in super-unleaded fuel seems to have been overstated. We would not support a ban on health grounds." So there you have it - if you are sensible when refuelling, stay up-wind of the nozzle and don't habitually stick your nose in the petrol tank filler, then the risk is probably minimal and applies to all grades of petrol.

The article "Petrol" in February S.F! seems to be a hotch potch of fact and fiction and written about the Australian market so not necessarily representative of the European market - I don't have room here to go into detail but for example most, if not all of the aromatics quoted as replacing lead, are also contained to a slightly lesser degree in modern leaded 4 star - toluene and xylene are also the major constituents of paint thinners so be more careful all you aerosol paint sprayers! The oil industry has, and is spending millions to meet the Volatile Organic Compounds (V.O.C) Emissions Regulations, which basically requires all loading and unloading of bulk tanker vehicles to be sealed, with the vapours being recovered and recycled; many service stations have already been converted to recover vapours into the delivery truck to comply with this regulation with all sites with throughputs greater than 1 million litres per year having to comply by the end of 1998 (more expense for the industry!). Before you start shouting about political correctness, this measure alone will prevent about 30,000 tonnes a year of petrol vapour from being discharged to atmosphere in the UK alone! Stage 2 Vapour Recovery, when it is finally agreed, will involve filling stations having to equip their dispensing pumps with special sealed nozzles and vapour collection systems, or the car will have to be equipped with carbon absorption canisters, or both - believe me, you ain't seen nothing yet, as they say! The "Petrol" article also claims that the lead compounds discharged from car exhausts " . . . falls to the ground within ten to twelve feet . . . etc "and can't be dissolved by acids or absorbed into the body etc. A recent report quoted in The Daily Telegraph 2 months ago raised concerns that lead concentrations measured in agricultural areas up to half a mile away from motorways (the M25 was particularly mentioned), were several higher than the agreed safe levels and these concentrations were giving cause for concern due to the possibility that the food chain and water resources could be adversely affected. In the UK therefore and by my calculations, 8,000,000 tonnes of 4* x 0.15 gm/litre = about 800 tonnes of lead compounds are pumped "harmlessly" out onto the road each year - but of course, in reality these particles are blown around and washed off the roads and don't just lie ridiculed the reports from the 1970s, which indicated that children in urban areas and close to motorways were suffering from absorption of lead compounds and which added weight (no pun intended) to the campaign to reduce lead in petrol - the only reason that I can assume that you give credence to the reports quoted from Australia and elsewhere, in preference to those highlighting the dangers of lead, is that they agree with your particular campaign criteria! To suggest that this "Petrol" article " . . . should be required reading by our Politicians and Educationalists " - well that's your opinion, but it certainly is not mine!

Just a word about lead - the best thing since sliced bread, it would appear after reading all your previous articles? The "lead" used in 4 star are organic compounds of lead - tetra ethyl lead and tetra methyl lead. HIGHLY TOXIC COMPOUNDS! Put very simply, enough of this stuff to cover a pin-head is reputedly enough to kill you (but you also go mad first!). Maintenance of leaded storage tanks (cleaning and repair), involves workers having to have blood and urine tests before and after carrying out the work; they have to wear fully enveloping pvc wet suits complete with full breathing apparatus; welding or cutting the steel plates generates toxic vapours from the scale and rust and again full breathing apparatus has to be worn. By the way you ever thought what the "rust" in the bottom of your old (leaded) petrol tank might contain? I would be very careful if you try to repair an old tank if it involves the application of heat and I don't mean because of the explosion risk! Even the vapour arising from disturbing the sludge in a bulk storage tank being cleaned is highly toxic, and breathing apparatus is required even if you happen to be near an open tank manhole. Now I am not suggesting that the petrol you buy is as bad as this since the lead is much less concentrated - I am merely trying to highlight that leaded petrol is not quite so benign as you have intimated.

Your Editorial of June 1995 refers to a report of a survey in "Professional Engineering" carried out by Associated Octel, quote " . . . the recognised source of petrol composition data to the Department of Health, Environment and Transport . . ." etc unquote. This report, makes the claim that unleaded is more harmful to the environment and public health than leaded petrol. I'm not a chemist and maybe it isn't, but what you did not report (perhaps you were not aware?), is that The Associated Octel Co Ltd supplies the bulk of the world's requirement of lead compounds (and other additives) for use in petrol, and has done for the past 70 years or so! They have of course seen their market for lead compounds severely reduced over the last ten to fifteen years and if leaded petrol disappears altogether then that market will also disappear. A slight conflict of interests, perhaps? At the opposite extreme, the Institute of Petroleum have concluded that "there is no link between low-level benzene exposure and any type of leukaemia" - this based on a study carried at the University of Nottingham.

Your latest comments in March S.F! "There was a report the other day that indicated that the incidence of Asthma has doubled since 1989, which is about 3 years after the introduction of unleaded petrol. And still people want to phase out leaded petrol", unquote. What happened to all your reasons for asthma quoted in your editorial of June 1995!? You may not have seen the report in the British Medical Journal which was quoted in The Daily Telegraph on 8th March - "Britains largest asthma outbreak, which filled London hospital casualty departments after a severe thunderstorm (June 1994), was probably caused by a high pollen count . . . Doctors say that gusting winds and rainfall increase pollen levels". As Mark Twain is supposed to have said, quoting Benjamin Disraeli " . . . there are lies, damned lies and statistics." As we all know, statistics can be used to prove anything, so that if we combine these two reports and using the logic that has so far been demonstrated in your campaign, it could be probably be "proved" that the thunderstorm was caused by the increased use of unleaded!

Finally, and again in March S.F!, I was interested to note that you run both of your cars on Shell low-leaded 4-star. Now this grade has been introduced since I retired from the business so I am not entirely familiar with its specification - but if you have been following my explanations some way back in this article, you may want to start to ask yourself a few questions. To be called 4-star it meets the BS 4040 specification for 4-star ie 97 RON, with lead between 0.05 and 0.5 gm/litre. To achieve 97 RON it has to contain lead or aromatics - if it is low-lead as it is described then some of the lead (in this case 50%) has been removed - which means that it must contain more of the aromatics. In other words, it is somewhere between unleaded and normal 4* - but you seem to be perfectly happy to use something that is almost the same as that " . . ." (your quote). Come off it, save the histrionics! Your logic seems to be seriously flawed! (Not anymore I don't as I was aware of this some time ago - APW)

Just a quick note in defence of the oil companies. To many people (including some of you past correspondents), they are still seen to be all powerful, money grabbing and environmentally unaware. In reality they are certainly very much aware of their safety and environmental responsibilities and respond very positively to public attitudes and concerns and support many environmental programmes worldwide - after all these same people are their customers. These companies leave most branches of industry way behind in their safety record, but when accidents do happen they tend to be fairly spectacular and quite rightly, attract a great deal of media attention (viz the Sea Empress at Milford Haven, now suggested to have been Pilot error). The companies do generate vast sums of money but imagine the vast sums of money which have been poured into the North Sea alone, to find and develop these resources which we all needed for our way of life. Somewhere around 70% of the price you pay at the pumps goes in tax to the Government (UK oil companies are probably the country's largest unpaid tax collectors and in 1995 handed over something like #20 billion in taxes). They are probably amongst the most efficient organisations in the world today - take the tax off a litre of petrol and you are left with about 18p - cheaper in real terms than 20 years ago, and this price has to cover the cost of exploration, production, shipping, refining, distribution, together with wholesaler's and retailer's profits etc. Ask yourself where else can you buy a liquid for 18p per litre? Milk? Water?

I will leave you with a quote from the President of the Institute of Petroleum talking about the need to ensure that scientific debate is used to achieve valid solutions:
" . . . There is a danger that emotion produces a much less beneficial answer for the environment and society. Similar complexities present themselves in the issue of transportation and air quality. The interaction of fuel, vehicles, weather and human behaviour produce outcomes which have meant a less satisfactory air quality.than we desire. The motor vehicle and oil industry have worked with the European Commission to deliver a sound scientific analysis of the options to meet our air quality needs at least cost to society. These air quality standards represent the most severe standards in the world. The retention of this analysis in the final stages of the process is vital if we are not to burden future generations with unnecessary costs and reduce Europe's competitiveness.

If politics are to determine the burdens we as a society are going to shoulder, then I think we need to ensure that the quality of debate is high. I am troubled by the use of incorrect data by pressure groups. I would contrast a mistake by a company in, say, its advertising material. The immediate question would be what system failed and what lessons had been learnt so that the responsibility this entity has to society are discharged. There may even be an element of penalty for the shortfall in the management. Contrast this with a pressure group where there is no such responsibility nor sanction. I wonder if society, or better still the pressure groups themselves, should not be looking for ways to make such groups more accountable and responsible for the things they do and say"

The kind of campaign that you have been conducting I feel, is reminiscent of the "greens" campaign against the dumping of the Shell Brent Spar platform - not based on any solid scientific evidence. In the case of Unleaded vs. Leaded. I am not suggesting that we do not need to be aware of the environmental and health aspects, but let us have a rational argument based on fact and not one that can only encourage further restrictions. Personally, I don't think there is that significant a difference between the two grades. If you are really that concerned about the polluting and health effects of petrol in general, may I respectfully suggest that you leave your cars in the garage and do what Norman Tebbit suggested a few years ago, and get on the bike! And please let's have a change of subject. (Why - are you afraid of something? APW)
GUY C. HARRIS B.Sc (Dunelm), C.Eng., M.I.Mech.E., M.Inst.Pet., M.Inst.Occupational Safety & Health

P.S. The letters after the name are merely to suggest that I can perhaps hope to claim some degree of authority in my comments!

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