MMT: Metal assault

In what seemingly looks like a diplomatic offensive to protect toxic trade, the US based company, Afton Chemicals, producer of fuel and lubricant additives, has lobbied hard with the US government to mount pressure on the European regulators to prevent the proposed ban on its product, Manganese Tricarbonyl Methylcyclopentadienyl (MMT), a very harmful octane enhancer for petrol. Afton has introduced MMT to replace yet another harmful octane booster tetraethyl lead. Both are neurotoxic metals added to petrol to boost octane and are produced and sold by the same company.

Evidently, the International Trade Administration of the US has sent a missive to the European Ministry of Economy pleading Afton’s case. The letter from Paul Dyck, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Europe urges EU Member States to “give serious consideration to the European Commissions proposal and support science base testing protocols for all fuel additives, including MMT.” The letter pleads that “while MMT is permitted and used in certain EU member states, Afton is concerned that the proposed amendment would lead to prohibition of MMT throughout Europe.”  The US department therefore argues for “Science based testing protocol” to circumvent the decision to stop its use.

The draft report of the committee on the environment, public health and food safety of the European Parliament proposes, “the use of metallic additive MMT in fuel shall be prohibited from January 1, 2010 onwards. The committee shall develop a suitable test methodology concerning the use of metallic additives in fuel other than MMT.”  It reasons that use of this and other metallic additives is very damaging to the environment. MMT can easily be replaced with less damaging substances, and the use of this additive should therefore be banned from 2010. Europe is concerned that some of the new accession countries that have recently joined the European Union are using MMT especially to improve poor quality of petrol imported from Russia.

Already European countries including Denmark, Germany, Latvia, Sweden, have come out in support of the proposed ban on MMT.

It is incomprehensible why the International Trade Administration of the US is backing this toxic trade when MMT has been virtually eliminated in the US market. MMT is legally banned in the reformulated gasoline that forms two-third of the US fuel market and are meant for more polluting regions of the US. In the regular gasoline also, its use does not exceed even one per cent today. The US refiners have volunteered to stop its use in response to strong public outcry. The State of California has banned it completely. Moreover, despite repeated efforts Afton has failed to convince the environmental arm of the US government the Environmental Protection Agency that MMT is safe. This ‘not in my backyard’ syndrome of the commerce arm of the US government can seriously harm the cause of public health in other countries especially developing countries in Asia and Africa that after phasing out leaded petrol are finding it even harder to stave off the threat of invasion of other harmful metallic additives.

Disturbed by the developments in Europe, a pre-eminent group of European health experts have come forward to write to the Ministers of Environment and Health in the EU member states in support of the proposed ban on MMT. They have very strongly argued that, “Manganese is a well recognized neurotoxicant. Evidence from France, Canada, the United States, Mexico, Bangladesh, and other countries strongly suggests that manganese exposure through inhalation and drinking water can damage brain development in children and permanently impair motor control and behavior in adults. In Italy and Canada, environmental exposure to manganese through industrial and traffic emission has been linked to an increased risk of Parkinsonism among exposed populations.”

Their appeal has weighed in the Brescia Declaration issued in a convention of scientists in Brescia, Italy in June 2006. This states clearly that “the likelihood that addition of manganese based additive in petrol could cause widespread developmental neurological toxicity similar to that caused by the lead-based additives now banned nearly worldwide.”

The US backed trade offensive of the Afton in Europe is hard to explain especially as both the US and Canada have found it extremely difficult to fight the trade laws under the North American Free Trade Act (NAFTA) when they tried to ban MMT. The environmental regulators in these countries have made repeated attempts to ban MMT. But a legal ban could not be enforced in the US as trade laws and a narrow scope of regulations constrained such decisions.

The use of the manganese additive in unleaded petrol was prohibited by the US Congress through an amendment to the Clean Air Act in 1977 unless USEPA granted a waiver. This provoked several waiver requests from the Ethyl Corporation, the erstwhile name of the Afton producing MMT. In response to the waiver request in 1994, the evidence presented by the Ethyl to the USEPA could not bear out the adverse impact of the MMT on emissions control components in vehicles adequately. But USEPA still denied the waiver request on the grounds of concerns regarding health impact of MMT. Ethyl then sued USEPA on the ground that under the specific clause of waiver in the clean air act EPA did not have the authority to deny the waiver request based on health concerns. It could only consider the impact on emissions due to damage to the emissions control systems in the vehicle.

Therefore, purely, on the technical ground of legality instead of health and environmental considerations, the US court ruled against a legal ban. Despite the adverse court ruling the USEPA administrator Carol Browner issued a public statement on July 3, 1996, saying “While it is true that EPA does not have data showing MMT to be a threat, that lack of data is exactly the problem. EPA does not have data proving MMT is not a threat…. The American public should not be used as a laboratory to test the safety of MMT.” MMT therefore, virtually does not exist in the US market.

Similarly, Environment Canada in response to a petition by automakers in 1996 announced its intention to restrict the use of MMT under a trade bill, Bill C-29. But the Bill was rescinded after a panel formed under the Agreement on Internal trade found that it was inconsistent with the federal government’s obligations under the trade agreement. Ethyl sued Canada for $251 million under North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The ban had to be lifted. Health Canada has now further pursued study to assess health impact of MMT. But it is important to note that even without a legal ban the refineries in Canada have stopped using MMT voluntarily.

MMT has been strongly discouraged in other industrialised countries as well. Germany’s Gasoline lead law that producers of additives to demonstrate there is no additional risk caused by any metal additive has prevented MMT use.  New Zealand has effectively banned use of MMT in 2002 by restricting manganese in petrol to a maximum limit of 2.0 mg Mn/L.  To improve petrol octane by 1 RON a minimum of 8 mg of manganese per litre is typically necessary. Japan was one of the first countries to completely ban lead and it also does not allow use of MMT.

In Asia India has taken the lead to stop the use of MMT in spirit and intent and continues to maintain this position. Indonesia has also decided not to use MMT. China tried to ban its use in 2004. China came under a lot of pressure from the industry. The city of Beijing has now taken the first step towards capping its blending to less than 6 gm/litre – much lower than the usual practice. Vietnam is so far successfully trying to resist its use.

As significant numbers of countries in Asia and Africa follow European regulations for vehicles, the current move to ban MMT in Europe is of crucial importance.  Afton is fighting very hard against the application of the precautionary principle in the developing world of Asia and Africa and demanding more and more studies and tests to prevent any impending ban.  When the industrialised world has virtually stopped the use of MMT allowing children in the countries of Asia and Africa to be the guinea pigs of this toxic experiment is not acceptable. These countries will have to apply precautionary principle that requires effective preventive measures to thwart the onset of more severe health effects in the population.

Like lead, manganese particles from MMT can be a potent neurotoxin, when inhaled. Inhaled manganese emissions and particles cause manganism. Its symptoms are similar to that of Parkinson’s disease. Like lead MMT can damage emissions control system in vehicles, increase emissions, and endanger the efforts to introduce clean emissions control technologies and fuels.

The governments of the industrialised world have a primary responsibility to stop trade in toxic substances to protect public health. It took decades for the world to understand and counter the lethal effects of lead and by that time a lot of damage had already been done. Similarly, with MMT there is still a chance to avoid the historical mistake.

-- Anumita Roychowdhury
Right To Clean Air Campaign