Eugene Weekly : News : 1.17.08

Idle Threat
Your car’s benzene pollution causes cancer

It’s a “known human carcinogen,” according the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and you inhale it every day, in traffic and at the gas station. It’s benzene.

The Oregon Toxics Alliance has been spearheading an effort to reduce benzene emissions in Oregon and hopes businesses in Eugene, as well as the city itself, will sign on to reduce benzene exposure and protect its citizens from toxic fumes.

Oregon has some of the highest reported levels of benzene in the U.S. because Northwest refineries use crude oil from Alaska, which is naturally higher in benzene. A 2006 EPA rule reducing benzene levels in gasoline still leaves Oregon’s gas with one of the highest benzene levels in the country, according to Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality.


“There is no safe level of benzene exposure,” says OTA Executive Director Lisa Arkin. There is a direct link between benzene exposure and cancers of the blood and possibly the bone, she says. “A lot of chemicals may cause cancer; this one will.”

Arkin says that studies show that breathing air contaminated with benzene inflicts genetic damage linked to childhood leukemia and that children who live within a two-block radius of gas stations not using preventative measures have a higher chance of developing leukemia. She also notes that “research is showing a higher incidence in childhood leukemia in the offspring of people who work where they are exposed to benzene,” making benzene a genetic mutagen.

But there are things that can be done to reduce benzene exposure, says Arkin, from preventative measures at gas stations to reducing car idling. Idling releases benzene and other pollutants into the air she says, and the OTA urges drivers to turn off their car if they will be idling for more than 20 seconds.

Contrary to popular belief, turning a car on and off doesn’t hurt the engine and in fact saves more gas and is better for the environment. Some automakers are installing “start-stop engines” that automatically turn themselves off when a car idles, then restart when the clutch is released and the car is put into gear. reports that start-stop engines save fuel and may reduce carbon dioxide emissions by up to 8 percent.

Arkin’s assistant on the benzene project, UO student Xander Kahn, says the OTA is trying to create a “culture of awareness” in Eugene that lets people know not only of the dangers of benzene but also what they can do to reduce risk. To that end they have created “No Idle Zone” signs warning people not to idle their car and small stickers that can be placed near your gas tank asking attendants not to “top off” your tank. Topping off tanks releases vapor fumes, including benzene. (Not to mention that excess gas can spill and mess up your car’s paint job, the OTA reports.)

Lane County commissioners voted to adopt a benzene reduction policy last September, and last week the city of Creswell adopted a policy in a unanimous vote. Corvallis is also on the verge of adopting a benzene reduction policy. In Eugene, businesses like Tyree Oil, Sequential Biofuels, and Sundance Natural Foods, to name a few, have partnered to reduce benzene levels.

As a result of OTA’s campaign, George Russell, superintendent of the 4J School District, sent out a letter to all parents urging them not to idle their cars while picking up or dropping off students. And OTA is asking businesses to adopt no idling policies while loading and unloading.

Another major source of benzene in the air is when tanker trucks fill the underground tanks at gas stations. As gas is pumped into the tanks, fumes are pumped out. Sometimes they are released into the atmosphere when they could instead be contained.

According to Arkin, any gas station built within the last 15 or so years is equipped with “stage one vapor control” equipment that prevents fumes from being released as the underground tanks are filled. Not all the stations that have the technology choose to use it, and Arkin hopes that Eugene will tell the gas stations they must use the equipment if they have it.

Go to OTA’s benzene campaign for more information.