A newly published review of top scientific literature suggests that ethanol-blended fuels widely available at gas stations as E10, E15, or E85 result in less toxic emissions from vehicles and present a lower risk to human health than regular gasoline. 

The study, a collaboration between The Hormel Institute, University of Minnesota and the Energy Resources Center, University of Illinois Chicago, shows that gasoline containing ethanol produces lower emissions of toxic chemicals known to cause cancer. The work was supported in part by the Renewable Fuels Association and The Hormel Institute.

“Research into this area is critically important because the environmental factors that affect cancer risk are not well understood and may have a huge impact on cancer promotion and progression,” said Dr. Shujun Liu, assistant director and head of the Cancer Epigenetics & Experimental Therapeutics section at The Hormel Institute.

Reducing cancer risks

“We need to do everything we can to reduce related cancer risks to protect human health,” Liu said. “Advancing research and understanding such as this is our responsibility and will be an ongoing effort.”

The review focuses on carcinogens, or substances capable of causing cancer, and epigenetics, or how behaviors and environment can affect how your genes work, and the impact of biofuels on each.

According to the National Cancer Institute, people can avoid some cancer-causing exposures, such as tobacco smoke and the sun’s rays, but others are harder to avoid if they are in the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat, or materials in the workplace.

The research suggests cancer risks are positively associated with exposure to occupational and environmental chemical carcinogens, including those from gasoline combustion exhausted in vehicles. 

The toxicity of chemical agents has been thoroughly studied,  however less effort has been put into studying the epigenotoxicity (e.g., aberrant DNA methylation that may lead to cancer).

Refiners blend aromatic hydrocarbons into gasoline to prevent the fuel from premature combustion (known as knocking), but ethanol has similar or superior anti-knock properties and is used as a substitute.

 As the blending of ethanol into gasoline substitutes for these carcinogens like benzene, toluene, xylene, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, cancer reductions are expected. 

In their regularly released Fuel Trends Reports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency specifically states that “ethanol’s high octane value has allowed refiners to significantly reduce the aromatic content of the gasoline.” 

The present study finds that this may lead to diminished cancer risk through an altered cellular epigenetic landscape.

More research is needed

The review summarizes the most important findings in the literature on the association between exposures to carcinogens from gasoline combustion, cancer epigenetics and the potential epigenetic impacts of biofuels. While the authors concluded that the available research points to biofuels containing fewer carcinogens and therefore reduced cancer risk, larger exposure studies are still needed to confirm the results.

“I’m excited to see the research point to what we’ve suspected after years of working in this field – that replacing aromatics with ethanol indeed can have a direct positive impact on human health,” said Dr. Steffen Mueller, principal economist at the Energy Resources Center, University of Illinois, Chicago.