WASHINGTON — The Environmental Protection Agency has put on hold its proposal to outlaw the last bit of lead in gasoline because it believes refiners are about to give it up anyway, an agency official said Thursday.
"Leaded gasoline will be an anachronism (by the end of 1988) in urban areas, and it will be almost impossible to find," said Richard Kozlowski, fuels specialist in the EPA's air pollution office.
But Ellen Silbergeld, a toxicologist for the Environmental Defense Fund, said she remains unconvinced. "History does not bear this out," she said. "Invoking the market to take care of lead in gasoline has been a constant refrain for a decade."
The EPA ordered lead in gasoline reduced from a maximum of 1.1 gram per gallon starting Jan. 1, 1986, and reaching 0.1 gram on Jan. 1, 1988. It proposed to ban the remaining lead on schedules it said could begin anywhere from Jan. 1, 1988, to Jan. 1, 1995.
Cause of Brain Damage
Lead is a poison, causing brain damage to which children are particularly vulnerable. EPA scientists also believe it causes kidney damage and accounts for a small fraction of high blood pressure in adult males.
Lead has been used in gasoline since the 1920s as the cheapest way to boost octane ratings.
Leaded gasoline has been declining for years, although not as fast as the EPA expected. In November, it represented 22% of the market, contrasted with 28.5% in November, 1986. EPA officials estimate its share of the urban market is 13%.
Exxon, Amoco and some other companies have already stopped offering leaded gasoline. Kozlowski said other refiners had told the agency they expect to stop in 1988 as pre-1975 cars that can legally use lead--and pre-1971 cars that need it for valve lubrication--continue to be junked.
Gasoline made after Jan. 1 will require more expensive octane boosters and this will raise the price of leaded gasoline to equality with unleaded regular, or higher. "Misfueling," or using leaded fuel in cars marked for unleaded fuel only, should decline sharply from its current 12% of motorists, removing more demand for lead from the marketplace, Kozlowski said.
But Silbergeld said she believes service stations might continue to sell leaded as the cheapest grade to attract customers, even taking a loss on it.
If misfueling does not decline, however, or new health effects are found, the agency could proceed with a ban. "We haven't decided not to ban it. We're in a holding pattern," Kozlowski said.