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March 28, 1996

Needleman campaigns for more studies of gasoline additive MMT

Long known for his efforts to reduce the amount of lead in the environment, Pitt professor Herbert Needleman has joined a new campaign — against another gasoline additive.

Responding to a request from the Environmental Defense Fund and 36 other environmental, medical, religious and consumer groups, 15 of the nation's oil companies recently announced that they are not using methylcyclopenta-dienyl manganese tricarbonyl (MMT) in U.S. gasoline.

According to Needleman, a professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, the octane-enhancing additive sold by the Ethyl Corp. has caused concern because airborne manganese at high doses has been found to cause disabling neurological impairments in movement and speech, similar to Parkinson's disease.

Oil companies not using MMT include Amoco, Anchor Gasoline, ARCO, BP, Chevron, Conoco, Exxon, Hess, Marathon Oil, Mobil, Penzoil, Phillips, Shell, Sunoco and Texaco. Environmental, public health and consumer groups say the public health impacts of long-term, low-dose exposure to MMT are unknown.

"The studies have not been done to see if this is safe or not," says Needleman.

According to Needleman, laboratory studies have shown that manganese crosses the placenta and retards growth in fetal rodents. When inserted into the brain cells of rats, it also disturbs the normal functionings of the cells.

Although the Ethyl Corp. claims that MMT has been used safely in Canada for 19 years at levels higher than those judged safe by both the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Public Health Service, Needleman points out that no systematic studies of manganese in humans have been done.

Needleman is particularly worried about the effects of MMT on children. In the March 14 New York Times, he and Philip Landrigan, chair of the Department of Community Medicine at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, wrote: "Children are more vulnerable than adults to most neurotoxins. They live and play close to the ground, where fumes from tailpipes settle. The nerve cells in young brains continually change, laying down connections and pruning back others. The effects of such a noxious influence [MMT] — learning disabilities and behavioral problems — could show up years later." Needleman and other MMT opponents want the Ethyl Corp. to undertake public health studies to determine the possible effects of the additive on humans before it puts the substance on the market. But the company has refused. In full-page ads in newspapers around the country, Ethyl claimed that MMT is smog-reducing, that it has been approved by the EPA and used in Canada without adverse effect.

In a reply to the Needleman/Landrigan column, Ethyl Corp. chair and chief executive officer Bruce Gottwald wrote in the March 18 New York Times that the EPA has conducted three health risk assessments on MMT, resulting in no data showing it to be a health hazard at low levels.

According to Gottwald, children consume more manganese in formula than they could ever be exposed to during a lifetime of MMT use. He said inhaled levels of MMT recorded in Canada are well below the safe level set by the EPA and U.S. Public Health Service. "But all that the opponents of MMT want to present are toxicology studies of highly overdosed rodents, or the health effects of uncontrolled, occupational exposures to large doses of manganese," Gottwald wrote. "These exposures, such as in mining or smelting of manganese, are hundreds of thousands and even millions of times greater than daily exposure in Canada." Needleman disputes Gott-wald's claims. He says that "nobody, including in Canada, has done a complete epidemiological study on the effects of MMT on humans." He also says that the manganese used in baby formula is inorganic and "relatively harmless." The manganese that comes out of the tailpipe, however, is an organic form of the chemical and toxic.

"An organic form crosses the blood-brain barrier," Needle-man explains. "If I took a cube of lead and rubbed it on my hands, it would mean nothing. But if I took organic lead, tetraethyl lead, and dropped it on the skin, I would get quite sick. It goes right across the fat and gets into the body. It is the same with MMT." Needleman also says he has been told by colleagues that MMT does not reduce smog. The EPA was ordered by a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., to approve the test use of MMT in gasoline on narrow technical grounds, he adds.

Ethyl sued the EPA in 1994 after it blocked manufacture of the additive as a health hazard. In October, the appeals court ruled that MMT was not covered by regulations that require fuel additives to be tested before they are sold. According to Needleman, the court ruled in Ethyl's favor because the company had applied for a test waiver on technical grounds that only took into consideration what MMT does to car engines and did not examine public health or environmental issues.

The appeals court said the Ethyl Corp. could test the additive while selling it and set no deadline for completion of the tests. The court's action drew an angry response from EPA Director Carol Browner, who said her agency "believes that more testing should be done before cars across the country begin emitting this additive." Ethyl's stand on MMT closely parallels its stand on lead in gasoline in the 1920s, according to Needleman. Then, Henry Ford's Model T was the dominant car. General Motors wanted to knock Ford out of the No. 1 spot and decided the way to do that was to build cars with high performance engines. High performance engines meant high compression engines, which in turn called for a gasoline to prevent engine knock. Scientists in General Motor's labs discovered that tetraethyl lead, which was invented by the Ethyl Corp. in 1922, prevented knocking and the following year Ethyl began selling the additive to refiners.

Needleman says workers began "dropping like flies" when the Ethyl Corp. started production of tetraethyl lead. About 80 percent of the 40 chemical workers at its Bayway, N.J., facility began hallucinating, some suffered convulsions and five died. Others were left permanently psychotic.

The problem became so acute that production was stopped and hearings held by the U.S. Surgeon General. During the hearings, the president of Ethyl testified that the additive was "a gift from God," according to Needleman, and it should be expected that workers would be killed while developing new products.

Among the other people who testified at the Surgeon General's hearings was a public health professor from Yale University. He told the committee that if lead was put into the nation's gasoline supply it could cause problems that nobody could foresee, but his testimony was ignored.

Following the hearings, production of tetraethyl lead resumed and blood-lead levels began to rise throughout the country. When the drive to remove lead from gasoline began in the 1970s, Needleman says, the Ethyl Corp. made the same claims about lead being safe that it is making about MMT today.

"They said it was not environmentally serious," Needle-man says. "That it was a product we needed to make our cars work well, that we needed it to conserve gas because of the fuel shortage, that it was important for the economy and national defense, and nobody ever got sick from air borne lead." Both the Ethyl Corp. and the Dupont Corp. sued to keep lead in gasoline but lost, and slowly the chemical was phased out with a corresponding drop in blood-lead levels. Today, according to Needleman, blood-lead levels in the United States are 75 percent lower than when lead was in the gasoline supply.

"A lot of people consider that the public health triumph of the past 20 years," Needleman says. "And now here comes Ethyl and they're selling a new snake oil that has never had any human epidemiology done."

–Mike Sajna

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