Photo by Patrik Carlberg on Unsplash

The Swedish government has proposed that 10% ethanol and biodiesel should be added to regular gasoline and diesel from 2014. Energy minister Anna-Karin Hatt’s proposal may lead to reduced carbon emissions, but this could also increase the risk of cancer according to Fiorella Belpoggi, director of the Cesare Maltoni Cancer Research Center at the Ramazzini Institute, Italy.  The government’s intention is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. They believe that ethanol in fuel is a good environmental alternative, but are they right or wrong? According to Belpoggi biofuels are a public health risk. Belpoggi spoke about ethanol and biofuels at the Think Tank: “Challenges and solutions for environmental effects on health”, organized by EnvirohealthMatters in Sweden. 20 people from 10 countries gathered on March 8, 2012, to address the envirohealth issues facing the world. Some of the world’s challenges were presented by scientists and other experts, followed by an open forum on how we can be catalysts for change and solutions.

“Ethanol has adverse effects on health”, says Dr Fiorella Belpoggi, one of Europes leading cancer researchers. “Ethanol emits carcinogenic chemicals like acetaldehyde and formaldehyde together with ultrafine particles. Until the carburetor is warm, which takes about 30 minutes or the equivalent of a trip to daycare or the office, these substances pollute the environment, both in and outside the car. Aldehydes are carcinogenic and pose a serious health risk and the ultrafine particles reach the alveoli and then other distant organs, causing serious diseases in humans.”

“It seems naïve to lower carbon emissions without taking into account the negative health effects on the people and environment exposed to the alternatives. We have already paid for the myth of non-leaded petrol in terms of public health. Exchanging leaded petrol with oxygenated additives (octane enhancers) like MTBE or ethanol is no better. These substances are also toxic and increase the risk of cancer.”  

Ethanol can be produced from many different sources. The ethanol used in Sweden is mainly produced from sugar cane, the production of which causes low CO2 emissions. But while ethanol alone seems to have a lesser negative effect on human health than conventional fossil fuels, the addition of ethanol to conventional fuels as an octane enhancer, poses a serious health risk. Ethanol made from waste or algae may be an interesting source of fuel, but carcinogens are always emitted during the combustion of ethanol-enhanced fuel. 

According to a major Swedish report on the carbon impact of ethanol it may take 50-60 years before a potential reduction of our carbon footprint is achieved. The production of crops used in the manufacture of ethanol increase carbon emissions and the heavily subsidized ethanol market is driving up the price of food. The poor of the world will certainly not profit. Ethanol from sugarcane, waste or algae is interesting as an energy source, but ethanol will always emit carcinogens during combustion.


Belpoggi insists that all fuel development should undergo extensive biomedical research for relative risk assessment, in order to eliminate or at least reduce all potential risks before being marketed. Current Italian research warns of severe health risks associated with the use of biofuels and calls for greater caution when looking for sustainable environmental solutions. We can never close our eyes to the potential health risks involved when developing alternatives that reduce our carbon footprint. We should instead support the research needed to discover safe alternatives first.
“Regardless of the source, ethanol is a serious health hazard”, says Belpoggi. “The use of crops in the production of biofuel will potentially increase hunger in the world. An article in Science magazine 2008 also revealed that if rainforests, peat lands, savannas or grasslands were converted into crops such as corn, soybeans or wheat, in order to produce biofuels, it would create  a “biofuel carbon debt” releasing between 17 to 420 more times CO2 than the annual reduction expected by replacing fossil fuels with biofuels”
We need to reconsider the current environmental road we are travelling and change course, before we regret it, and invest in our future and the research this demands. Human health is an integral part of a healthy environment and the future of mankind.

Background information

The Ramazzini Institute focuses on research on cancer and environmentally induced diseases. Other goals are to prevent and disseminate information on environmental health and cancer, and to monitor certain high-risk groups of population. The Institute is independent and run by a social not-for-profit cooperative of more than 20 000 members.

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