MMT: Courting poison

MMT: Courting poison


We had no clue this was happening in India. We were suspicious ever since we read the illuminating study on the deadly octane enhancer, MMT (Methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl) from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). Scary. Manganese particles from MMT burning as a petrol additive, is a potent neurotoxin that damages the brain when inhaled. Manganese deposit fouls up vehicle components and emission control systems. As an octane booster, MMT is expected to save fuel. But in reality, as evidence shows, it barely makes any difference. But its use has dangerous repercussions.


If China and Africa have already fallen victims to this trade of poison, can India escape? We probed. We encountered silence - even ignorance - and in some cases clear reluctance to talk about it. Some remarks from the industry indicated the small refineries in the north-east are possibly using it. And then the Central Pollution Control Board was tipped off on manganese inventory in two prominent refineries near Delhi – Mathura and Panipat. CPCB alerted the Delhi pollution control committee. The Committe and Delhi’s transport department shot off missives to the oil companies to confirm its use.


An amazing story unfolds as we persist. Because Delhi has expressed concern, some oil companies, including IOC, have given assurances that they will not blend MMT in petrol — in Delhi. Who cares if the rest of the country falls prey to the deadly toxic? The central Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas has no national regulatory framework to prevent its use. Silence is obscuring the precise estimate of the extent of MMT use in the country.


Industry forecasts the increased use of MMT, as this allows greater flexibility to refineries to meet the octane requirements, while meeting the tighter Euro III norms. IOC claims that this helps to fine tune production.


Are they aware of the alarming research findings, such as those by US-based Health Effects Institute, which shows MMT produces fine particles laden with manganese oxides, associated with phosphates and highly soluble sulphates. More soluble particles melt in the blood more readily, and hit the brain more rapidly. They can enter the brain through the nasal passages without circulating in the blood first. Frightening - the clearance rate of manganese from the brain is slower than the absorption rate!


Even global carmakers Ford and Honda have evidently stated that their engine is not designed to use fuel or fuel additives with metallic compounds, including manganese-based additives. Vehicle industry evidence shows that MMT contaminates engine components and exhaust emission control systems. This leads to a significant increase in emissions and a lower fuel economy (MMT enhances octane by a mere number one). Evidence from China shows red manganese deposits on catalysts after 20,000 miles of use. Gaseous emissions can increase by as much as 118 to 143 per cent! The big investments on advanced catalyst technologies to meet the tighter emissions norms can go waste if manganese plugs and chokes them quickly.


When confronted, the reaction of the oil companies was typical -- irrespective of what science proves, USEPA allows its use! Canada is still using it. The Indian oil industry projects a ‘flourishing’ MMT trade in developed countries to defend their new dirty business.


The oil industry holds back the science and the ground realities of MMT use in the US and Canada. It glosses over the fact that use of MMT is already sparse in the developed world. Canada, the only major user of MMT, has voluntarily reduced its use. As much as 95 per cent of Canadian petrol is MMT-free today. California had banned manganese additives way back in 1976. The rest of the US does not allow MMT in reformulated gasoline. Nor do US oil majors use it. A legal ban therefore has little meaning in the US. Stringent regulation in New Zealand is effectively banning its use. Germany hasn’t approved its use. Japan does not use MMT.


While the rich are getting wiser, the producers of MMT are moving base. Resorting to aggressive marketing campaigns to peddle this toxic additive in vulnerable Asia and Africa. Enticing its use through attractive pricing to countries that are technically unequipped to deal with the killer cargo.


Who will act in India? The Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) distances itself from this responsibility on the grounds that the nodal ministry of petroleum will have to take the lead to make it obligatory for oil companies to declare the chemicals they use. But the petroleum ministry does not demand such information. Meanwhile, the environment ministry has no system for full accounting of the risks of such substances for mass consumption.


India is underestimating the potential conflict with the emerging MMT business. Even the industrialised North, with strong technical and regulatory capacities and comprehensive regional laws, has not found it easy to fight this toxic trade. USEPA’s inability to wield a legal ban despite the strong science advisory stands testimony. USEPA was sued when it denied a waiver request to the Ethyl Corporation, the principal producer of MMT. Trade laws in the North are so restrictive that Environment Canada could not push through a ban in the face of Ethyl Corp.’s lawsuit against the Canadian government. Tough trade laws can make business and easy profits supersede concerns over public health.


A similar case haunts California’s efforts to ban MTBE, yet another petrol additive, and a water contaminant. Methanex, the Canada-based MTBE producer, had sued California arguing that the ban violates the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It had demanded compensation for the profits it would have to forsake if California bans MTBE. NAFTA protects foreign investors when they sink money into projects in NAFTA member-countries -- US, Canada and Mexico. The big lesson: Once the business in toxic substances grows, any effort to stop it thereafter gets blocked as an infringement of trade obligations. So be precautionary. Act now.


Instead of becoming a conduit of this dirty trade, Indian oil companies should learn from the oil majors in the US and Canada. Faced with strong public concern, the oil majors, even without a legal stick, have voluntarily disclosed that they are not using MMT and have no plans to do so.


Remember, for over a decade a global war was waged to rid tetraethyl lead from petrol – for exactly the same reasons. Asia and Africa struggled hard but still have traces of leaded petrol. After all that effort, governments cannot remain oblivious to the spill over risk from one regulatory action shifting the risk about.


We can easily do without MMT. Leading regulators and experts represented in ICCT say the fuel economy loss of not using MMT is so meager and inexpensive that it does not justify the several times higher health cost associated with its use.


Ban MMT. Regulate fuel additives and screen them effectively for hazards. Make the producers and sellers of such substances liable and place the burden of proof on them to provide evidence that the substance will not cause adverse effects. In Germany, the industry producing metallic additives has to prove that the new substance will not cause harm and the German federal environment agency defines the test to prove it.


Don’t repeat the mistake of lead. There is enough evidence for us to be precautionary. Indecision today can expose the entire country to unacceptably high risk.


- Anumita Roychowdhury
Right To Clean Air Campaign