Pumping Gas: Hazardous To Your Health And The Planet New Law In Cambridge, Massachusetts Aims To Protect Public Health

The government mandates health warnings on everything from food to cigarettes to pesticides, but what about fossil fuels? Why aren’t there labels warning of damage to public health and the environment?

fumes from pumping gas. Credit: Skitterphoto, PexelsIn Cambridge, Massachusetts there will be, thanks to a new law.  On January 27, Cambridge became the first city in the nation to require public safety warnings on gas pumps. Ordinance 1418 states that, “Each self-service automated dispensing system shall display a clear warning label explaining that burning gasoline, diesel and ethanol has major consequences on human health and on the environment, including contributing to climate change.”

Such labels may help counter an enormous barrage of ads from the car and fossil fuel industries. “You can turn on your TV and be told in beautiful voices and bright pictures that natural gas is a clean fuel and that the fossil fuel industry are the good guys,” says Quinton Zondervan, Cambridge City Councilor, who sponsored the bill. “We have to attack that messaging at all levels.”

Since transportation accounts for over a quarter of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, this ordinance seems long overdue. Exposure to gasoline can affect the lungs, stomach, skin, and nervous system and auto emissions may cause or worsen asthma, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia, and upper respiratory tract infection, showing the need for a public health warning.

In addition, public health impacts from climate change are expected to be significant. A recent study warns of “heat-related illnesses, illnesses caused by poor air quality, undernutrition from reduced food quality and security, and . . . vector borne diseases.”

Overall, health and environmental damage from gasoline adds the equivalent of $6.50 per gallon of gas, according to Jamie Brooks, Campaign Manager for Think Beyond the Pump, who has spent years advocating for such a bill in Berkeley, CA, Cambridge, and elsewhere. He adds that, “‘De-normalizing’ gasoline consumption could generate a new norm that gasoline is a public health and climate risk, putting greater pressure on consumers, suppliers and lawmakers to respond.”

Warning labels on gas pumps are intended to spur behavior change, if only a little at a time. Seeing them daily may nudge people into buying an electric or hybrid vehicle when they are ready for a new car.  Individuals may also take the bus or train, bike, or walk more often. It is even possible that some families will eventually choose to live without a car.

Warning labels, that is, are one part of a toolbox transforming the way we get around. Jan Devereux, the former Vice Mayor who originally sponsored the new law, explains that Cambridge already has a whole set of tools encouraging a transformation in mobility, including parking and traffic management, an ordinance requiring protected bike lanes, a complete streets policy, Vision Zero to eliminate pedestrian deaths, and a 20 mph speed limit in residential areas. Cambridge is “doing everything in our power to discourage driving,” Devereux exclaims.

Still, the power of one jurisdiction is limited. Most important, Cambridge cannot pass a gas tax or put a price on carbon, nor can they do congestion charging, policies being debated by the Massachusetts state government. “I work on the carbon tax at state level, and this is our eighth year and we do make progress each year,” says Zondervan, but immediate action is needed.

Warnings on gas labels may very well increase public awareness, leading to pressure to pass other measures. Although Cambridge has a population of only 115,000, drivers from all over the region will pass through and view the message, “so this will have a wider audience,” says Devereux.

Still, it was a long struggle to get the warning label bill passed at all. Efforts began in Berkeley, California, in 2014, but were scuttled by legal worries. Devereux began trying to pass the bill in 2016, but it would not happen until 2020, after she was no longer on the council.

Even now, the wait will be a bit more, since it is up to the city manager and other officials to actually implement the new law. “We have city staff who will actually figure out the language that will be on label,” along with communications and outreach, says Devereux. Zondervan expects a wait of a few months before the law comes into effect, while Brooks worries about a lawsuit from the fossil fuel industry.

The hope is that, once the law gains some attention, it will spread. Zondervan and Devereux both mention Amherst, Brookline and Somerville as nearby jurisdictions likely pass similar bills.  Nationwide, other cities, and even states, may follow. Perhaps some day health warnings on gas pumps will be as normal as those on cigarettes.

Change can seem slow but then happen fast. Cambridge was “one of first cities to pass a plastic bag ban,” says Devereux, and it’s spread virulently. But that first law took eight years to pass, “which is crazy because now in hindsight, what all the to-do about?” asks Devereux. Similarly, warnings on gas pumps may now seem radical, but we might soon wonder why such a common-sense measure took so long.