As a proponent of clean air and energy, I recently learned about one of the dilemmas involving using a renewable alternative to burning fossil fuels. One of the proposed options that dates as far back as the 90s has been corn-derived ethanol, which is mixed into regular gasoline, in theory to decrease the greenhouse effects of gasoline on its own. Little did America’s scientists know that accompanying this possible option were unknown health and environmental risks.
The United States Department of Energy is currently a proponent of ethanol fuel production from corn, promoting this resource as one of several solutions in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. They state that including it, in more than 98% of U.S. gasoline, in concentrations of “10% ethanol, 90% gasoline,” oxygenates the fuel and reduces air pollution (U.S. Department of Energy). However, several studies over the past 10 years have shown that there are many consequences attached to the increased usage of corn derived ethanol (Runge 2016). First, some small impacts are that ethanol contains less energy per gallon and could potentially damage car engines. Then, the increased usage of corn may lead to the increased price of it as a human and animal food source. Corn-fed chicken, eggs, pork, beef and milk rely on the corn industry, and using it as biofuel would increase the prices of these too.
Most importantly though, there is evidence that the gasses produced from burning this biofuel could lead to mortal health effects. Although the usage of “85% ethanol and 15% gasoline” “reduce atmospheric levels of two carcinogens, benzene and butadiene, it increased two others—formaldehyde and acetaldehyde” (Ginnebaugh and Jaccobson 2012). It also produces ozone, smog, that collects in large cities which have widely implemented the biofuel. This dangerous gas layer has shown to decrease lung capacity, inflame lung tissue, worsen asthma, and impair the body’s immune system (Ginnebaugh and Jaccobson 2012). Finally, according to the same scientific journal, declining bee population health has also been linked to the increase of ethanol-based particles in the air. Humans and crucial organismal populations have been and continue to be placed in danger, unbeknownst to them.
Despite the clear side effects of this fossil fuel alternative, the United States Department of Energy promotes this system widely because, “corn demonstrates a positive energy balance” (U.S. Department of Energy). This means that producing corn-derived ethanol does not use more energy in its creation than what produces as the final product. To me it appears that there is a clear disconnect between the Department of Energy and that of the Department of Public Health and Environmental Protection Services.
This research left me with a lot of questions. What has caused this disconnect? Why has the U.S. Department not taken into consideration the health risks that are a result of corn-derived ethanol? Potentially, they may believe that the health of people in cities may be less important than the reduction of greenhouse gasses in the long run. They may also consider this a worthwhile sacrifice in the name of climate change deceleration. In any case, it is fishy that these governmental departments are not required to include such risks on their official websites or statements.
Research from several Ivy League universities again and again demonstrate the overwhelming cons that outweigh the pros of using corn for ethanol production. Exuding more carcinogenic particles in the air should not be a side effect that is overlooked, and the reduction of bee population could have extreme effects on agriculture as a whole. It is time to rethink the usage of this biofuel and possibly the negative effects of others as well. After learning of this, it made me rethink the concept of biofuels as a whole. They are all just chemicals, and each new alternative should not be considered better simply because using a vegetable sounds more “natural.”