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Get the Lead out!

or ... NASCAR's poison

***   See January 2007 update below   ***

May 2005

NASCAR stock car races are today the main source of toxic air pollution from leaded fuel. They need to clean up their act.
I have enjoyed stock car racing for over forty years.  The Cup races of NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) appeal to me and to other millions because they feature top-flight but down-to-earth, accessible, non-primadonna athletes and teams in an exciting, competitive, and complex sport.  For my money it's the most fascinating competition in U.S. sports.  But I rarely go to the races.  One reason is that I don't fancy being poisoned.

It's now more than three decades since the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), under the authority of the Clean Air Act, determined that lead in the air was a hazard to our health.  This was no mere theoretical hazard.  Airborne lead was found to be directly involved in long-term developmental damage in children.  Studies of children had shown that lead in the blood was associated with lowered intelligence and reduced ability to concentrate.  Unborn children were found to be particularly sensitive.  Studies further showed a rise in miscarriages if either or both partners have been exposed to lead pollution.  Lead could reduce men's fertility and increase the risk of women giving birth to retarded children.  Lead accumulating in our bodies, even at low concentrations, was associated with hypertension, and could reduce production of hemoglobin in the bone marrow, where lead is deposited.  The chief source of lead in the atmosphere was the lead additive in gasoline.  As a result of these findings, EPA required that leaded gasoline be phased out.  EPA estimates that every year about 22,000 deaths have been avoided, and 45,000 fewer retarded children are born, as a result of the reduction in atmospheric lead.

So for nearly twenty years we've been progressively safer from the hazard of lead in the air.  That is, unless you're a NASCAR fan.  Or a NASCAR driver;  or mechanic;  or stadium worker.  Or you live downwind from a NASCAR track.  NASCAR balked at removing lead from their racing fuel, it convinced Congress in 1990 that lead was necessary to stock car racing, and under the rule as written by EPA, the racing industry was exempted from compliance with the ban on leaded gasoline.  NASCAR's argument amounts to this, that in order to present its fans with sufficiently high-powered racing, it must also present its fans with the hazard of lead in the air they breathe.  This has apparently seemed to EPA and OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration) a reasonable argument.  It doesn't strike me as a reasonable argument.

But the greatest threat from NASCAR's use of lead is not to the fans, but to the drivers and crews.  Their exposure to fumes from leaded gasoline is not occasional, as the fans', but constant in the workplace.  This should be a matter for OSHA.  No one should have to accept being subjected to toxic fumes as a requirement for keeping their job.  Just how much of a hazard is NASCAR subjecting its crews, fans, and neighbors to?  Unfortunately, it has not been possible to find that any study has been made of this question, though it should have struck both NASCAR and air quality authorities as an issue that needs resolution.  For example, a study of the race day air at Bristol, a compact, high-walled bowl of a track, would be illuminating.

To their credit, NASCAR has created a wholesome family atmosphere (in the emotional sense) at their venues, which means there are lots of kids at the races.  But it's not to NASCAR's credit that the atmosphere (in the physical sense) may be far from wholesome – may, in fact, be poisonous.  To provide entertainment that encourages the attendance of young children, and then to present them with air pollution of a sort that is known to lead to developmental retardation in children, is not being nice.  And, in today's litigious society, it's certainly not being smart.  Who can predict what a jury will do?

NASCAR and its owners, the France family, have seen their sport grow to unimagined popularity over the past twenty years.  To accommodate and encourage the new nationwide fan base, NASCAR has added race dates and has abandoned many of its smaller historic tracks in the south-east for huge new tracks in populous markets, such as the Chicago and Los Angeles areas.  As a result, NASCAR is also bringing its lead-filled atmosphere to these new markets.  I personally hope NASCAR will get smart and realize that the new fans care about clean air, they care about their health, and above all they care about their children's health.  As more fans realize that they and their children are required to breathe toxins in order to enjoy a race, NASCAR may lose its carefully constructed clean image, unless it acts proactively to resolve the lead problem before it's forced to do so by fan protests or jury decisions.

© 2005 H. Paul Lillebo

January 2007 update:
I'm happy to report that NASCAR, after trying out unleaded fuels in some of their racing series last year, is switching all their national racing series to unleaded fuels in February of this year.  It appears that NASCAR has listened to the many letters, newspaper articles, and other appeals to take this step.  This is of course positive, but since NASCAR should have and could have done this on their own many years ago – they never needed the exemption from the Clean Air Act that they lobbied for and got – it reminds us again that we can't count on officialdom or the good will of industry to do what is right; public vigilance and direct involvement is critical.

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