Harvard Study Bolsters Ethanol’s Role in Protecting Public Health, Saving Lives

April 15, 2020

The novel coronavirus – COVID-19 – has brought with it many life-impacting questions. What are its origins? What is its pathology? When and where can one test for it? How long will this outbreak remain a threat? Is a vaccine going to be widely available soon?

Another question that researchers at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health have taken on is: What are the ties between COVID-19 and areas that have demonstrated a high degree of air pollution?

The Harvard team’s recent findings underscore the need to power more of our transportation system with non-petroleum-based fuels, like ethanol.

The research team looked specifically at polluted areas beleaguered by fine particulate matter 2.5 (PM2.5). Motor vehicle emissions are a primary source of PM2.5, which are tiny particles or droplets in the air that are two- and one-half microns or less in width (there are about 25,000 microns in an inch). The widths of the larger particles in the PM2.5-size range is some thirty times smaller than the width of a human hair. Smaller particles could fit on the head of a pin in the thousands.

COVID-19 is notable for its ability to aggressively attack the human respiratory system, especially the lungs. Unsurprisingly, pre-existing conditions which depress lung function are considered risk factors for infected patients, and are likely to contribute to the between 100,000 and 240,000 pandemic-associated American deaths currently predicted by federal scientists.

The Harvard particulate matter study sought to shed further light on environmental contributions to COVID-19’s impact by exploring the potential connection between recorded deaths attributed to the coronavirus and long-term exposure to air pollution – known to be correlated with the same pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of death from COVID-19.

Using data collected from approximately 3,000 U.S. counties, which contain 98-percent of the population, the research team found that an increase of only one microgram per cubic meter in PM2.5 is associated with a 15-percent increase in the COVID-19 death rate. Furthermore, the research shows that a small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate, with the magnitude of increase 20 times that observed for PM2.5 and all-cause mortality.

Social distancing, self-quarantine and the closure of businesses, schools and other gathering places brought with them a significant drop in travel by car, with a corresponding decline in PM2.5 emissions by motor vehicles. However, the Harvard team’s findings heavily underscore the need to more fully address the incomplete combustion of aromatic hydrocarbon molecules in gasoline, which is a major source of PM2.5.

In addition to reducing emissions of particulate matter, running passenger vehicles on fuel blends whose octane source is a higher percentage of ethanol also cuts down on the use of the dirtier-burning benzene, toluene and xylene to boost the octane in gasoline. It is undeniable that on multiple fronts, burning ethanol results in better overall air quality than when cars burn conventional gasoline.

The findings by the Harvard team add critical support to the message long conveyed to policy makers by SfL and other biofuel advocates: that ethanol represents a major step in progress towards farm production that is sustainable for the environment and human health. Ethanol could also offer additional income to a farm sector hammered in recent years by flooding, droughts, and federal trade disputes that have brought severe damage to previously strong U.S. farm trade partnerships. Instead, market effects and policy uncertainty surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is shrouding the farm sector’s future in ways not seen in decades.

(In a related development, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler said Tuesday his agency will not tighten a regulation covering industrial soot emissions, including power plants, another big source of PM2.5. The regulation came up for review before the coronavirus outbreak, but Wheeler claimed the scientific evidence was insufficient to require more restrictions on industry-generated particulate matter.)

The Harvard team’s findings reinforce the critical importance attributed to ethanol and biofuels: Cleaner sources of transportation fuels save lives. Trump’s EPA must stop the efforts to scale back the role of ethanol in today’s transportation fuels, and must, at the very least, drop efforts to gratuitously hand out to refineries hardship exemptions to the Renewable Fuel Standard that are costing American corn growers and producers of other feedstocks valuable and much needed markets for the renewable fuels that growers generate.

The U.S. farm sector is in a tenuous position, complicated by what could be a freefall stemming from the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. The economic protection of the ethanol industry should be of paramount concern to the White House. The Harvard study results underscore the importance of sustaining the contributions that biofuels make to this nation, including protecting health and saving lives.

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