Ethanol is a biofuel which, when added to gasoline in concentrations up to 15%, or up to 85% in the case of flex-fuel vehicles, helps to reduce emissions and reduce gasoline consumption, but did you know it is also poisonous?
Say it isn’t so! For the non-chemists, ethanol (C2H6O) is actually one of the oldest psychoactive drugs still used by mankind. It might better be known by some of the trade names that it is marketed under, including Jack Daniels Old No. 7 Black Label (40% ethanol), or Santiago Queirolo Gran Vino Borgoña (11% ethanol). Ethanol poisoning is a well-known phenomenon and, depending on dosage, the effects can range from a relaxed sensation to unconsciousness and death. Whoa!
To reduce the United States dependency on imported petroleum, refined to make gasoline, diesel fuel, and other materials, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has mandated gasoline dilution by up to 15% ethanol. Most vehicles manufactured today have no problem using up to 15% ethanol, or E15 blended gasoline, and some specially-manufactured vehicles can burn up to 85% (E85) blends. The EPA has recently put the US ethanol, as well as other biofuels programs, on hold, thanks in no small part to Big Oil companies.
Need I mention that Texas is the Nation’s biggest oil producer, and the World’s 14th biggest oil producer? According to a recent report by Rice University, in Houston, Texas, spills of E15 and E85 can have disastrous effects. For example, foundation cracks in a house near a spill may allow fine methane vapors (ethanol degrades into methane gas) to pool in basements, leading to explosion hazard or hydrocarbon poisoning. Rice researchers say that ethanol concentrations of 5% or less don’t present much of a problem, but fuel blends greater than E15 could pose a major problem.
Don’t get me wrong, I think explosion hazard and hydrocarbon poisoning is a problem, but gasoline spills are pretty much all bad to begin with, right? Gasoline vapors are just as explosive and poisonous, and yet the United States consumes about 367 million gallons of gasoline per day. Why aren’t we seeing studies on the dangers of gasoline spills? Interestingly, co-authors on the Rice University paper include representatives from Chevron and Shell, and the research was supported by none other than the American Petroleum Institute.
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