Next, itll be catalytic converters.
January 20, 2006
Petty: Drivers, crews worry about lead exposure
By DINAH VOYLES PULVER
Anybody who's ever worked on a car knows how easy it is to get really irritated, but a new medical study shows NASCAR mechanics and drivers may have more reason than most -- the lead in their racing fuel.
That's one reason NASCAR will use unleaded fuel for its racecars and trucks beginning in 2008, making the switch from the high-octane leaded fuel that it has used for decades, according to a report in The New York Times.
The fuel, Sunoco 260 GTX, will be used in NASCAR's three main racing series -- Nextel Cup, Busch, and Craftsman Truck. It was already being used in the Grand American road racing series.
Although NASCAR has not mandated that teams wear protective gloves or use air filters when working with leaded fuel or near exhaust fumes, at least one team has opted to make those changes. Penske Racing South employees were tested late last year and some lead exposure was detected, so protective gear was added, The Times report said.
"It's about time," Penske Racing South's president, Don Miller, said of the switch to unleaded fuel. "I know that they had been looking at it for a long time."
Leaded fuel had been a concern for Kyle Petty, the third generation of a legendary auto racing family.
"You got to be worried about it. You should be worried about it," said Petty, CEO of Petty Enterprises Inc. and driver of the No. 45 Dodge. "I think anybody should be worried about it."
Especially the guys who work on the engines, Petty said Thursday. "They're running engines, working with carburetors, being around fuel all the time."
When the rest of the U.S. had to give up leaded gas under a federal ban in 1986, the racing and airline industries were exempted. Since then, national studies have shown that the level of lead in humans has plummeted.
But tests by a pair of doctors at the Indiana University School of Medicine showed that after a November 2004 race the members of one NASCAR racing team had overall lead levels nearly 10 times higher than the average adult in one national study.
The doctors, Joseph O'Neil and Gregory Steele, said they found elevated levels of lead in 40 percent or 19 of the 47 members of the team. Privacy laws won't allow the doctors to identify the team.
The doctors were looking for a connection between what team members do and the level of lead in their blood. And they say they found it.
Crew members working on engines, brakes and at the rear of the car while it's running in the pits had higher levels of lead than those who didn't, the doctors said during a telephone interview Thursday.
And the crew members with higher lead levels had symptoms consistent with that lead exposure -- weakness in their hands, feet and wrists, irritability, headaches and concentration problems.
The doctors stress their study is too small to draw specific conclusions and that more study is needed. They hope to study other teams and NASCAR officials and are trying to get grant money to pay for it. They've heard other teams are interested.
"It's important for other crews, other drivers and NASCAR officials in the pits to be looked at to see what their lead levels are," Dr. Steele said.
The study did not include any other testing, including soil and air tests at a track, but the doctors said such tests would be useful. The doctors did say it's unlikely fans in the stands or crew members who don't work on cars would be exposed to worrisome levels of lead.
But a draft EPA report published online in December expressed concern about crew members and fans being exposed to lead.
NASCAR approached the EPA in 2001 to talk about a partnership to eliminate lead in racing fuel within three to five years, an agency spokeswoman said this week.
The simplest steps that team members can do are the same things anyone can do when they're exposed to harmful substances, the doctors said.
Wear latex gloves when they're using solvents, wash their hands thoroughly after working with solvents and change their clothes as soon as they're done at the end of the day. For engine builders who touch lead on the valves, Dr. O'Neil said a simple glove can minimize exposure almost completely.
Crew members who breathe exhaust fumes could reduce their exposure by using breathing filtration systems, the doctors said. The Petty team has taken steps to limit its exposure, Petty said.
Fuel is stored outside the shop in a different building. They use only the fuel needed to test engines and all the fuel is emptied out when the cars are put on the truck.
Ultimately though, Petty said he's more worried about radiation from all the X-rays he gets after wrecks than he is about lead.
It was a different concern of NASCAR drivers that first got the Indiana doctors interested in a study.
They read news reports on the drivers' concerns about carbon monoxide poisoning and learned that NASCAR uses leaded racing fuels. "If they're being exposed to carbon monoxide," Steele said, "they're also being exposed to lead."
The doctors said the last study they could find on lead exposure in the racing industry was in 1968. Besides NASCAR, leaded fuel also is used at Volusia Speedway Park in Barberville.