Dear EarthTalk: I am looking at possibly buying a house that is very close to a gasoline station. Is it safe to live so close to a gas station? What concerns should I have? I have toddler and infant babies.
-- Ranjeeta, Houston, TX
Despite all the modern health and safety guidelines they must follow, gas stations can still pose significant hazards to neighbors, especially children. Some of the perils include ground-level ozone caused in part by gasoline fumes, groundwater hazards from petroleum products leaking into the ground, and exposure hazards from other chemicals that might be used at the station if it’s also a repair shop.
Ozone pollution is caused by a mixture of volatile organic compounds, some of which are found in gasoline vapors, and others, like carbon monoxide, that come from car exhaust. Most gas pumps today must have government-regulated vapor-recovery boots on their nozzles, which limit the release of gas vapors while you’re refueling your car. A similar system is used by the station when a tanker arrives to refill the underground tanks. But if those boots aren’t working properly, the nearly odorless hydrocarbon fumes, which contain harmful chemicals like benzene, can be released into the air.
Higher ozone levels can lead to respiratory problems and asthma, while benzene is a known cancer-causing chemical, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The quest to reduce ozone levels has led the state of California to implement a more stringent vapor-recovery law, effective April 1, 2009, which requires that all gasoline pumps have a new, more effective vapor-recovery nozzle.
Underground gasoline storage tanks can also be a problem. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that there are some 660,000 of them from coast-to-coast. Many a lawsuit has been filed against oil firms in communities across the country by people whose soil and groundwater were fouled by a gas station’s leaking underground storage tank. In the past, most tanks were made of uncoated steel, which will rust over time. Also, pipes leading to the tanks can be accidentally ruptured.
When thousands of gallons of gasoline enter the soil, chemicals travel to groundwater, which the EPA says is the source of drinking water for nearly half the U.S. If buying a home, consider its potential loss in value if a nearby underground storage tank were to leak. Gasoline additives such as methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE), which has been outlawed in some states, make the water undrinkable—and that is only one of 150 chemicals in gasoline. Repeated high exposure to gasoline, whether in liquid or vapor form, can cause lung, brain and kidney damage, according to the NIH’s National Library of Medicine.
Spilled or vaporized gasoline is not the only chemical hazard if the station is also a repair shop. Mechanics use solvents, antifreeze and lead products, and may work on vehicles that have asbestos in brakes or clutches. Auto refinishers and paint shops use even more potentially harmful chemicals.
In today’s car-centric world, we can’t escape exposure completely, because these chemicals are in our air just about everywhere. But by choosing where we live, keeping an eye out for spills, and pressuring the oil companies to do the right thing for the communities they occupy, we can minimize our exposures.
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