EPA Approved Fuel Ingredient With 100% Lifetime Exposure Cancer Risk?

Updated on September 14, 2023

EPA Approved Fuel Ingredient With 100% Lifetime Exposure Cancer Risk?

Many of you will read this title and think it’s just a poor attempt at a clickbait. I would have preferred that as well, believe me, but the truth is much more sinister. So, what happened?

We first need to go back to January 2022 when the EPA announced it’s making an effort to help bring new, climate-friendly chemicals into the market to reduce greenhouse gas emissionsOn the face of it, this announcement sounds great, but doesn’t mention the use of discarded plastics in producing these new fuels. In fact, according to ProPublica’s research, 16 out of 34 approved fuel programs are made of plastic waste for the time being.

Many of these chemicals are unknown to the general public, but ProPublica and Guardian wrote about a particularly nasty one.

Cancer Inducing Ingredients

<span style="font-weight: 400;">Cancer Inducing Ingredients</span>

Even though not all the chemicals used for these ingredients are known to the general public, ProPublica requested EPA’s assessment report where calculation showed that a particular boat fuel ingredient had a 100% cancer risk over a lifetime of exposure (from air pollution as a result of burning this fuel)!

Such risk, for an approved chemical, is incredibly unusual since the current lifetime cancer risk of a new chemical is one in one million – meaning, if a million people are exposed to such chemical over a presumed lifetime of 70 years, “only” one additional cancer case would be likely (on top of those who already face cancer risks from unrelated causes).

But that’s not all. Talking about the water pollution, it is estimated that for every 100 people who ate fish raised in the water that’s contaminated by this fuel, 7 would expect to develop cancer. This risk is a staggering 70,000 times greater than what the EPA considers acceptable.

When questioned about these harmful chemicals and their cancer-associated risks, EPA stated those were grossly overestimated. When talking about the jet fuel (where the estimated cancer risk over a lifetime exposure was one in four), for example, the report assumed the airplane idling on the runway, burning an entire tank of fuel with nearby residents breathing in that exhaust fumes over their entire lifetime. Which, of course, does not reflect the conditions in the real world. 

Another argument was that most petroleum-based fuels were not even subjected to such trials since they were exempted under a law passed way back in 1976 and that only the new chemicals are so rigorously analyzed. 

Recent Development

Naturally, the EPA was under scrutiny and new information emerged as the time went by. The agency now stated they’ve mislabeled some of the critical information in the report and said that the “four in one” cancer risk chemical was tied to the pollution released from the exhausts of jets and boats and that the smokestacks produce. This means that people living around the chemical processing plants were not in such danger (allegedly).

What’s even more worrying is that these cancer-causing chemicals are intended to be produced at 100 sites across the US, but EPA says they don’t know their exact locations.

Chevron, who will manufacture these chemicals, stated only that “The safety of our employees, contractors and communities are our first priority. We place the highest priority on the health and safety of our workforce and protection of our assets, communities and the environment.

As this problem grew, more officials started to join in and further investigate this story. One such individual was Jeff Merkley, one of the chairmans of the Senate’s subcommittee on environmental justice, who expressed his concern over these harmful chemicals.

<span style="font-weight: 400;">Recent Development</span>

United States Senate, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

EPA has since issued another response repeating that their calculations do not represent the real-world risks and that the reality is these chemical’s cancer risks are “only” one in 100,000 over a lifetime exposure

Earlier in the text, I mentioned EPA’s typical cancer risk in approved chemicals which was one in one million, so one in 100,000 is still 10 times higher.

The Aftermath

Though the original policy of reducing harmful chemicals to combat climate change had a noble goal, the truth remains that we are still unsure of the effect of using these plastic derived fuels. These might be beneficial to climate, but if they are also harmful to living organisms, we might have to reconsider.

Unfortunately, these are not the only risks these newly approved chemicals are linked to. The reports shared by the EPA point out other issues (that are not yet thoroughly researched):

  • The effects of the chemicals on infants
  • The potential accumulation of these chemicals in the environment as well as living organisms
  • The adverse effects of this long-term accumulation 

But it’s not all bad!

In June 2023, the EPA proposed a new rule saying that all the companies intending to use plastic waste in fuel production must contact it. The agency can then ask for additional tests to ensure new fuels don’t contain unsafe contaminants.

Of course, this raised some eyebrows in many environmental organizations who asked “Why didn’t the EPA do things the right way right from the start, in which case no additional test would be required.” 

Where does that leave us? At the end of the day, we need to have faith in the institutions and trust they will do their job according to the law and our best interest. Will they? It remains to be seen…

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