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Lives Per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction

Lives Per Gallon: The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction

by Terry Tamminen

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How much would you pay for a gallon of gas? $4.00? $10.00? Would you pay with the health of your lungs or with years taken from your lifespan?
The infamous "pain at the pump" runs much deeper than our wallets, argues Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency and current Special Advisor to California Governor Arnold


How much would you pay for a gallon of gas? $4.00? $10.00? Would you pay with the health of your lungs or with years taken from your lifespan?
The infamous "pain at the pump" runs much deeper than our wallets, argues Terry Tamminen, former Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency and current Special Advisor to California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Petroleum may power our cars and heat our homes, but it also contributes to birth defects and disorders like asthma and emphysema, not to mention cancer. In Lives Per Gallon, Tamminen takes a hard look at these and other health, environmental, and national security costs hidden in every barrel of oil.
While the petroleum industry is raking in huge profits, Tamminen shows, it is studiously avoiding measures that would lessen the hazards of its products. Using the successful lawsuits by state governments against big tobacco as a model, the author sets forth a bold strategy to hold oil and auto companies accountable and force industry reform. He also offers a blueprint for developing alternative energy sources based on California's real world experiences.

Certain to be controversial, Lives Per Gallon is an unblinking assessment of the true price of petroleum and a prescription for change. The choice is clear: continuing paying with our health, or kick our addiction and evolve beyond an oil-dependent economy.

Editorial Reviews

Orion magazine

“Tamminen’s personal and impassioned overview of the evidence against Big Oil makes a persuasive argument for the urgency of ending our petroleum habit.”

Sacramento Bee

"...launches a blistering attack on the practices of the world's oil and automobile industries..."

"Tamminen's personal and impassioned overview of the evidence against Big Oil makes a persuasive argument for the urgency of ending our petroleum habit."
Associate Professor of Environmental Studies & Population Health Sciences at Univ. Wisconsin-Madison - Jonathan Patz

"The book reads like a gangster thriller, while providing detailed and painful truths about how much the oil and auto industries have controlled development (or lack thereof) in the U.S....a definite 'must read' for anyone interested in improving America's future and national security."
President, Waterkeeper Alliance - Robert F. Kennedy

"America's prosperity, our independence and security, our democracy and our ideals, our international leadership and national pride are all dependent on our breaking our lethal oil addiction. Terry Tamminen has turned the spotlight of clarity on the defining issue of our age."
Fox News political analyst and former advisor to President Clinton - Dick Morris

"We all thought we knew the costs of oil addiction—power to terrorists and tyrants, and global climate change. But Tamminen's book demonstrates that we don't know the half of it. Gasoline is a deadly carcinogen like tobacco. The health, environmental, and climatic impact of our oil dependency, he shows, is catastrophic. And the economic cost of subsidizing the oil industry is bankrupting. But Tamminen does more than point to the problems. He lays out step-by-step solutions to ending our oil addiction. I only wish that all members of Congress would read this book."

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Lives Per Gallon

The True Cost of Our Oil Addiction

By Terry Tamminen


Copyright © 2009 Terry Tamminen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-535-5


The Breath of Our Fathers

Have you ever really thought about the 3,000 gallons of air you breathe each day? If so, then you know that 99 percent of it is oxygen and nitrogen, which can be metabolized or otherwise transformed in the human body. What might have escaped your notice is the other 1 percent, which is inert argon gas that is not modified, but simply inhaled and exhaled. Because of the finite, unalterable supply of argon in the atmosphere, we share it with every other living thing on our planet and we always have.

Harvard researchers have thought a lot about this 1 percent. They calculate that by the age of twenty, each of us has inhaled argon atoms that were literally exhaled by dinosaurs, Gandhi, Shakespeare, and a carpenter from Bethlehem. This surprising fact about argon illustrates that we literally share the same air with all living things on the planet, both past and present, making it a unique resource. So how do we treat our air, something that is arguably sacred?

One hundred percent of the air we breathe is contaminated with human-made pollutants, fouled with a toxic stew of oil-related ingredients bearing acronyms like PAHs, PM 2.5, BTEX compounds, and GHGs. In some instances, amounts may be negligible, but the majority of Americans live in areas of air pollution that exceed even the most basic state or federal standards that are designed to protect public health. Although you probably know people who have broken a limb or succumbed to cancer, you may not think you know anyone who actually suffers from disease related to air pollution.

Those who sued tobacco companies for hiding the harms of their products were told by the companies that cigarette smoking alone could not be held responsible for the illness and deaths of people like my father. These people, the companies said, were also routinely exposed to other sources of hazardous air pollution, especially from cars. And indeed they were. Research conducted on half a million Americans between 1982 and 1998 confirmed that a lifetime exposure to petroleum pollution exacerbated the effects of smoking, resulting in "enhanced mortality." In short, not just tobacco but petroleum literally began to take away the breath of my father and millions of Americans like him from the day they were born.

Yet it is not tobacco that is the biggest threat to human health from the smoke it blows in our faces. It is the petroleum industry that is listed by the Geneva Protocol on Air Pollution as the largest single source of harmful air pollution worldwide. Have we made a Faustian deal with the Devil? Are we now indefinitely obliged to pay our part of the bargain in human lives? Fast, seemingly cheap, independent transportation in exchange for higher rates of birth defects, asthma, emphysema, and years shaved from our lives?

"It required no science to see that there was something produced in great cities which was not found in the country," opined Dr. Henry Antoine Des Voeux in his 1905 paper "Fog and Smoke," the first scientific article to use the term smog. For more than a hundred years we have known something about air pollution in general. When did we learn about the specific contribution to smog made by motor vehicles?

What Did Ozzie and Harriet Know? A Brief History of Smog

By 1957, when black-and-white television sets broadcast Ozzie and Harriet and Leave it to Beaver—iconic images of a pure American lifestyle in which the greatest problem was a milkman who forgot to deliver the cheese—Congress had already become concerned about the health effects of vehicle pollution. Legislation was introduced that would prohibit any motor vehicle from U.S. roadways that discharged pollution in excess of levels found dangerous by the U.S. Surgeon General. Needless to say, that legislation didn't pass, and by 1961, the U.S. Department of Health estimated that 90 percent of all Americans lived in localities with harmful air pollution that was directly linked to vehicle exhaust.

By the time the nation lost JFK two years later, our rose-colored glasses began to clear and government agencies told us that every day in the United States, automobiles were discharging 430 tons of nitrogen dioxide (NO2), a harmful pollutant and component of smog. Little was done by the federal government to address this growing problem, however, and when Richard Nixon won the White House in 1968, those emissions had increased by more than 50 percent above the levels of just five years earlier.

As bras were burned and a war in Southeast Asia was fought and protested, researchers uncovered a correlation between higher death rates and higher smog levels. They also found that our elders suffered smog-related illnesses, such as asthma and bronchitis, ten times that of middle-aged Americans and that people in poor health at any age were much more likely to die prematurely if they breathed smog. By the time an actor from California left the White House in 1988, evidence from around the world showed that smog hastened the death of thousands of people every year and caused or aggravated bronchitis, cancers, heart disease, and asthma in millions more.

My family first moved to Los Angeles in 1963. We lived in an apartment on land that had once belonged to Edgar Rice Burroughs in a suburb called Tarzana, not far from glamorous Hollywood. We sat by the swimming pool, while our relatives in the Midwest shoveled snow from their frozen driveways, mesmerized by the tales of old Hollywood provided by our neighbor Harry, a retired stuntman for Eddie Foy.

"That's haze," Harry would correct us, if we dared ask about the obscured skyline above the palm trees. "We don't have smog in Hollywood."

Fortunately, in those days, scientists had more credibility with government regulators than did stuntmen. Although the federal government failed to act, the State of California recognized that weather patterns and mountainous geography conspired to create and magnify a serious smog problem in places such as the Los Angeles basin. State officials had formed county air pollution control districts as early as 1947 to combat the growing threat.

As a result, and because the federal government ultimately followed California's legislative lead and enacted national laws and pollution standards, there have been remarkable air quality improvements in the intervening years. Nonetheless, some pollution measurements in the Los Angeles region today remain more than double the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) standards and therefore continue to pose significant health risks. Many of the chemicals found in petroleum products—and the air pollution caused by their manufacture, storage, distribution, and combustion—are defined by the USEPA as "materials that cause death, disease, or birth defects in organisms that ingest or absorb them." Although much of this discussion draws on the California experience for examples, there are, as the American Lung Association pointed out in early 2006, more than 152 million people who live in areas of the United States where the air quality puts their health at risk. Sorry, Harry, but that includes Hollywood.

Secondhand Petroleum Smoke: The Six Most Dangerous Pollutants in Smog

After more than a hundred years of research, many of the health effects of smog are well understood, yet they are still very much out of control, both in the United States and in a growing number of cities around the globe. Detailed descriptions of the effects on human health and the environment are described later in this chapter, but first let's examine the six most toxic constituents of the inescapable secondhand smoke we create by the combustion of millions of barrels of petroleum in the United States every day.

1. Particulate matter. Have you ever sat in traffic behind a big truck or an old school bus and experienced the black soot that belches from the smokestack or tailpipe when it starts up or accelerates? That's particulate matter (PM), measured as large particles of 10 microns or less, and small ones of 2.5 microns or less, called PM 10 and PM 2.5, respectively. To get an idea of this scale, consider that the human eye can detect objects as small as 35 microns (or millionths of a meter) and that a grain of table salt is about 100 microns.

Soot from fires and dust from unpaved roads, agriculture, or construction generate significant amounts of PM 10 in addition to the amount pumped into our air by the incomplete burning of petroleum fuels. That's what the soot from the school bus really is— petroleum that hasn't burned in the engine, especially a diesel engine.

The smaller particles, PM 2.5, that are even more insidious in terms of human health are generated from some industrial smokestacks, but the major culprits are emissions from vehicle tailpipes and the exhaust of planes, ships, trucks, and trains. These fine particles are especially toxic, causing respiratory ailments, cardiopulmonary disease, premature death, low birth-weight babies, and infant deaths. Research reveals that illnesses, such as asthma and lung cancer, and death rates rise on days when the amount of particulate matter in the air also rises. Conversely, evidence shows the benefits of decreasing particulate matter in the air: illnesses and death rates drop.

2. Volatile organic compounds. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) include a wide variety of products that easily evaporate, hence the term volatile. The fumes from paint, pesticides, cosmetics, and solvents and the distinctive odor you notice when you pump gasoline are examples of VOCs. The VOCs in petroleum products, including benzene, 1,3-butadiene, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), are particularly toxic and are known to cause cancer.

Petroleum VOCs are especially insidious because they are not only emitted from the tailpipe while the engine is running, but they also fill the air above most parked vehicles, especially on hot days as the fuel expands in the engine and fuel lines. VOCs are known carcinogens and reproductive toxins causing leukemia, lymphatic tissue cancers, birth defects, bronchitis, and emphysema. Benzene is the "bad boy" of VOCs, with a growing body of evidence showing that health harms from inhaling it are significant even at very low levels.

3. Ozone. "Asthma now hits 1 in 10 children, study says," blares the headline from the Canadian Globe and Mail on January 27, 2006. The newspaper article describes the surprise of regulators and researchers alike, but Canadians could have read even more ominous findings in the Fresno Bee as early as December 2002, when that paper ran the story "Last Gasp," describing that one in six children in Fresno, California, carries an asthma inhaler to school.

Or during the 2000 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, when researchers discovered that decreased traffic in the metropolitan area over that two-week period of the games correlated to decreases in ozone levels and fewer hospital emergency visits by children complaining of breathing difficulties.

Although ozone in the upper atmosphere shields Earth from the sun's harmful ultraviolet radiation, high concentrations at ground level are a threat to human health, animal health, and plant life. Ozone is formed when reactive organic gas (ROG) and nitrogen oxides react with sunlight. ROG comes from a variety of organic sources. For example, emissions from cows around Fresno supply almost as much ROG as does the refining and burning of fossil fuels in the same area. Of course, in most modern cities without a great deal of livestock, the bad actor is petroleum-based ROG, not the dairy herd.

Ozone acts like an acid on the lungs, causing and aggravating asthma, but it doesn't stop there. It also causes other respiratory ailments and impairs lung function, harms the immune system, aggravates heart disease and emphysema, and can cause fetal heart malfunctions.

4. Nitrogen dioxide. One of the charming bromides of Harry, the aging stuntman from the golden era of Hollywood, was an unwitting response to nitrogen dioxide, or NO2. "I don't trust air I can't see," he would say, laughing and pounding his fist on the rusted metal patio table. It didn't strike me as odd at the time, but he always wheezed as he laughed.

Harry had a lot to trust in his hometown. The brownish tinge to Los Angeles's skies in the 1960s, and the skies over many other metropolitan areas today, comes from NO2, a highly reactive organic gas that irritates the lungs and causes both bronchitis and pneumonia. It can also aggravate respiratory disease and lower resistance to respiratory infections. NO2 is one of many oxides of nitrogen (NOx), all of which are a part of those ROGs that help form ozone.

5. Carbon monoxide. As unsavory as the first four air pollutants on this list are, carbon monoxide (CO) is especially insidious because it is colorless, odorless, and highly poisonous. In short, it is a sneak thief of breath.

Having read this far, you will not be surprised to learn that the majority of CO in the air comes from vehicles burning petroleum fuels. A smaller amount comes from woodburning stoves, industrial smokestacks, and even the use of natural gas in your kitchen oven. No matter the source, this sneak thief robs the blood of oxygen, which ultimately can cause asphyxiation and death. When inhaled by pregnant women, CO can threaten fetal growth and mental development of the child.

6.Lead. Although lead was eliminated from most gasoline in the United States starting in the 1970s, it continues to be used in aviation and other specialty fuels today. When it was ubiquitous in gasoline, lead from fuel exhaust polluted soils along roadways. Those polluted soils dry out and become airborne, so lead is still thereby readily inhaled. In addition, coal-burning power plants dump significant volumes of lead into the air each year.

Lead pollution delivers one of the more Darwinian consequences of all the self-inflicted wounds wrought by human-made air pollution. In men, it reduces sperm count and creates abnormalities in what's left. In women, it reduces fertility and can cause miscarriages. Children are especially vulnerable because they absorb lead more readily than do adults.As their brains and nervous systems develop, children may suffer significant learning disabilities and hyperactivity as a result of lead exposure.

For children and adults, lead is a neurotoxin even at very low levels, affecting the circulatory, reproductive, nervous, and renal (kidney) systems. Furthermore, those low levels "bioaccumulate" in bone and other tissues, meaning that part of each dose is stored in the body and is a poison that "keeps on giving." Although these effects have been well understood for decades, oil companies continued to sell leaded gasoline around the world long after the United States phased it out.Venezuela got the lead out in late 2005, for instance, but it is still found in the gasoline of at least twenty other countries today.

Smoking Guns: The Surprising Similarities of Tobacco and Oil

Of the constituents in secondhand petroleum smoke, lead is the only one that isn't also found in tobacco smoke. The health damage caused by both tobacco and petroleum are also similar in many ways. Table 1.1 lists the most common and the most toxic constituents that are found in both tobacco smoke and vehicle exhaust. Whether you inhale from a cigarette, breathe in secondhand tobacco smoke, or simply breathe the air in most parts of the industrialized world, you are inhaling benzene, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide, and a host of other toxins. No matter the source, inhaling these pollutants can cause cancer, respiratory illness, and damage to your heart, lungs, and reproductive system.

Given these facts, it is not surprising that researchers have determined that living in a place with as much petroleum air pollution as Los Angeles is a lot like living with a smoker. Living in Madrid, Spain, is the equivalent of smoking half a pack of cigarettes a day, and a third of Spain's entire population lives under what they call "the grey beret" of smog. The Jakarta, Indonesia, city government simultaneously addressed its problems with tobacco and petroleum smoke by passing a law that banned smoking in public and another that required a smog check of all vehicles. Those bold steps were taken when air quality standards were met on only twenty-eight days in 2005, pushing Jakarta into third place, behind Mexico City, Mexico, and Bangkok, Thailand, as the smoggiest cities in the world.


Excerpted from Lives Per Gallon by Terry Tamminen. Copyright © 2009 Terry Tamminen. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Terry Tamminen served as the Secretary of the California Environmental Protection Agency and Chief Policy Advisor to Governor Schwarzenegger. In 2007 he was named the Cullman Senior Fellow and Director of the Climate Policy
Program of the New America Foundation and an Operating Advisor to Pegasus Capital Advisors. He currently travels throughout the world, lecturing and providing consulting services to clients on climate and energy policy.

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