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  QUESTION: Short & long term effects of exposure to fumes from leaded gasoline in Madagascar. 23 May 2004, District of Columbia USA

My son (19 years old) is on a 2 year mission for our church in Antananarivo, Madagascar. He recently wrote to me and said that the house he is living in is right next to the freeway. They still use leaded gasoline in Madagascar. My son is experiencing headaches which he is attributing to the leaded gas fumes from the freeway. This caused me great concern. I am wondering if I need to be worried about the side effects of this on his health, both short term and long term?
Any help you could offer would be greatly appreciated.
Thank you,
Gail Mattinson
AANSWER: 23 May 2004

Dear Gail,

This is a very difficult question to answer, on account of there being so many possible components of both the auto emission fumes from the freeway and the direct volatilisation of gasoline and diesel fumes which arise from cars and trucks just parked in the sun or during re-fuelling if your son is also living or working close by to a service station for instance.

Hopefully, blood lead testing would be available in Madagascar through the doctor and your son could therefore get some idea of his level of exposure to all the other possible components in the fumes but unless he could obtain a Material Safety Data Sheet on the fuel sold from the petroleum companies or some air pollution data from the environmental agency, there is no way of knowing the full extent of possible long and short term health effects.

Asthmatics tend to be worse off when inundated by the oxides of nitrogen in traffic fumes but even people who exercise near a busy road can suffer from ground level ozone which damages the lungs. The level of volatile organic components (benzene, xylene and toluene) in both the fuel itself and the resultant auto emissions will make a difference to the long-term cancer risk although lead is fast becoming recognised as a human carcinogen too and there are some very nasty carcinogens in diesel. 

Particulate pollution from vehicle emissions and the burning of wood and coal for industry and heating in cities is regarded as being the biggest killer in air pollution but it mainly preys on the very young, the very old and people with cardio-respiratory illness. You could ask your son how far he can see across town or how much black dust falls on the window sill after he wet-cleans it, to get a vague idea of the level of particulate pollution where he is living as it is the particulates in the air that limits visibility.

It would be important to eradicate other causes of headaches by asking whether he is suffering from stress, drinking enough water, whether he's exposed to any other fumes eg from paint, or whether the doctor can find any other cause of the headaches. It's not recommended that he just ignore them. If he's convinced that it is the freeway fumes then the next question is, is it essential that he remain living where he is or could he find a place less impacted by air pollution?

I'd be happy to give you an interpretation of your son's blood lead level when he gets the result for a more precise response to your question.

I hope this helps.
Yours Sincerely
Elizabeth O'Brien

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