SPECIAL REPORT

Drivers, passengers say something’s very wrong with LPG-fueled taxis

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01:56 AM November 3rd, 2011

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November 3rd, 2011 01:56 AM

(First of a series)

Alexander de la Rosa started driving taxis for a living in 1983. At age 48, he says he’s healthy and doesn’t drink alcohol. “I smoke cigarettes, but not a lot.”

Two years ago, he switched to driving a taxi that used LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) as fuel because it was a lot cheaper than regular gasoline. It was an experience, he told the Philippine Daily Inquirer, that landed him in the hospital.

Alfonso Tatad has been a cab driver since 1965. He says he doesn’t have any vice. At 67, he looks trim and fit—except that he seems to be catching his breath while talking.

“I got asthma because of driving an LPG taxi,” he says, showing an antiasthma inhaler.

Francis Barro used to drive an LPG taxi but quit after he noticed his throat always felt dry, his skin began to look rough, he had headaches and always was extremely exhausted. He was also losing weight.

Rolando Tamundo, 34, drove an LPG taxi for a year in 2008. Like the other drivers, he says he often felt his lips and throat going dry and he had to drink lots of water while driving. Then he started losing weight.

Once, when he caught the flu, he consulted a doctor. “The doctor advised me to stay away from vices … because I’m a smoker … and if it’s possible to stop driving an LPG taxi,” he said.

Putrid smell

These drivers are among many who say driving LPG-fueled taxis is harmful to one’s health.

This reporter rides a taxi to work daily. Last year, while aboard an old cab, called the “Toyota big body,” a putrid aroma assaulted my nose.

“What’s that smell?” I asked the driver, worried for my wife and our 2-year-old baby with us. “Is that LPG?”

The driver nonchalantly replied: “Wala ’yon. (Don’t mind it).”

Days later, while riding a later model cab—commonly referred to as the “Toyota new look”—the driver admitted that the unit was using LPG for fuel. There was no bothersome odor inside, but a few seconds after getting off, we coughed so hard we almost puked.

Every single day since then, the two things we ask drivers after getting into a cab are, “Have you driven an LPG taxi; and how was your experience?”

Common experience

The majority of the drivers interviewed by the Philippine Daily Inquirer reported having gone through these conditions: Dryness of throat, dizziness, headache, loss of appetite, an unusual fatigue that is “different from being tired.”

Health authorities and doctors could offer no medical explanation for the drivers’ woes, or if these were caused by the LPG gas fuel.

One driver, who usually starts at 6 a.m., says he felt so sleepy after only three hours that he had to pull over and take a nap. On waking up after a few minutes, he says, he felt disoriented, “like I didn’t know where I was.”

Barro says that before he drove an LPG taxi, he still found time to play chess while having coffee at home after working for 24 hours. “But it’s different with an LPG taxi. I drift off to sleep while sitting down with my coffee.”

De la Rosa remembers three incidents while driving an LPG-fueled Toyota 1997 model taxi in September 2009. In the first few weeks, he says, he had difficulty breathing.

In March last year, he went down with the flu and couldn’t breathe properly. He says he wasn’t asthmatic and that it was his first time to feel that way.

Four months later, he had an asthma attack and was rushed to East Avenue Medical Center in Quezon City. “All my life, that was only my first time to be hospitalized,” he says.

Asked what his job was, De la Rosa told the doctor he was a cab driver. The doctor didn’t say a word and prescribed only vitamins.

Allergic reaction?

He went back to driving the same LPG taxi until November last year, when he got bedridden for two weeks after a third asthma attack coupled with the flu. A month later he decided to quit driving the LPG cab. He now drives a taxi which uses regular gas, and says his asthma symptoms have also stopped.

Tatad says he had difficulty breathing when he was at the wheel of the LPG taxi, which he drove for two years starting in 2007. “I also couldn’t understand why my head and body felt like these were inflated.”

He was at home on his day off when he felt the same symptoms, lost consciousness and was rushed to Rizal Medical Center in Pasig City. The doctor, he says, told him that he almost had a stroke and that he developed an allergic reaction to the LPG.

Tatad has since been driving a diesel-fueled taxi, but he still has asthma.

Barro says he got worried after the headaches and fatigue did not go away. He saw a doctor, who didn’t prescribe anything, but advised him to quit driving the LPG taxi and to see him again if his condition did not improve.

“I stopped driving the LPG taxi. After two weeks my condition improved,” he says.

Other drivers reveal that they had passengers, who turned out to be doctors and who warned them to stay away from LPG taxis if they wanted to stay healthy.

One woman doctor, says one driver reportedly told him that a lot of taxi drivers have sought treatment at the Lung Center in Quezon City where she’s based.

Barro relates that a doctor passenger explained to him why drivers, and passengers as well, were vulnerable to inhaling LPG fumes.

“The LPG fumes come from the carburetor and pass through the air-condition duct,” he says.

“You do not notice it because it goes through the evaporator, but the coolness from the air-conditioning unit is different, like it has a chemical coming from the LPG tank. That’s what the driver and passenger inhale inside the taxi,” Barro says.

“If it’s really good, why don’t they build car engines designed for LPG?”

“Sometimes I ask, did the decision to allow the use of LPG in taxis go through the proper procedure … Why was it approved when there seemed to be no study on its effects on people?”

Tamundo believes the problem with LPG taxis starts when there’s a leak in the hoses that connects the LPG tank to the car engine. The leak, he explains, is difficult to trace, and takes close monitoring and regular maintenance checkups by qualified mechanics.

He now drives a cab that uses diesel fuel. He said there’s no difference at all between the fuel expense, “boundary” and his take-home pay from an LPG and diesel taxi: Both consume P1,300 worth of fuel; the “boundary” is P1,500; and the take-home pay is P1,000 for a 24-hour shift.

Substandard conversion

A number of taxi drivers claim that, while the Arroyo administration may have had good intentions in allowing the use of LPG for taxicabs in Metro Manila, something went wrong along the way.

The drivers cite a Land Transportation Franchising and Regulatory Board (LTFRB) requirement as a crucial factor that spawned unexpected problems for taxis. Four years ago, at the height of the successive oil price hikes, the LTFRB granted a three-year extension to old taxicabs—provided they converted to LPG.

As a result, the drivers say, a lot of fly-by-night LPG conversion shops sprouted, charging much lower rates. The substandard quality of the work in these shops, the drivers pointed out, could be the cause of the leaks in LPG taxis.

Taxi operators are said to have been aware of the increasing number of drivers getting sick while driving LPG taxis.

Joli Malaki was one of 10 drivers of Basic Taxi who were asked by its operator, Quezon City Councilor Bong Suntay, to undergo a medical checkup at East Avenue Medical Center. “Order daw ng DOH (Department of Health),” says Malaki.

Drawbacks

However, Malaki adds that he never saw the results of the medical exam. He likewise notes that Suntay—who is said to also own Clean Fuel, one of the largest chain of LPG stations in Metro Manila—only wanted “healthy” drivers to have the medical tests.

At that time, Malaki had been worried because he was already experiencing dryness of throat and unbearable fatigue while driving an LPG taxi unit for Basic. He has since transferred to a regular gas taxicab.

De la Rosa says that a suggestion from the government for passenger jeepneys to convert to LPG is ridiculous. Taxi operators, he claims, are already aware of the downside of using LPG fuel for cabs. Many taxi units, especially the Toyota Vios models, reportedly break down often. He says engine overheating results from LPG gas.

Another drawback, he points out, is that an LPG taxi travels only eight kilometers per kilogram of the fuel. The driver or maintenance guy has to clean the taxi’s engine parts every week, otherwise it would consume more LPG, he explains.

Fleet reconverts

The entire fleet of TAI (Toyota Alabang Inc.) Taxi is in the process of reconverting back to regular gasoline after encountering engine troubles with LPG. “Car engines are prone to breaking down when using LPG fuel,” said one driver.

Noel Bautista, 56, operates a fleet of eight taxi units. In 2008 he had one of the units converted to run on LPG fuel, after hearing about its “benefits.”

“It’s said to be really economical,” he told the Inquirer.

He tried driving it himself. But it took him only two weeks to conclude that it’s a health hazard. “I felt my neck was always dry and stuck with some chemical. I was always thirsty. I get dizzy when getting off the taxi),” he says.

Maintenance cumbersome

After hearing about friends in other taxi companies getting sick—and at least six of them  dying—while driving LPG cabs, Bautista says he did his own research. He says the leak could be a result of inadequate teflon thread in the LPG tank nob or overheating of the carburetor.

He points out that taxi drivers who work 24 hours a day can get immune to the smell and not notice it at all. He recalls a taxi driver friend who lit a cigarette inside the cab, unaware that LPG fumes had been circulating around him: “The taxi caught fire and his scalp was torn off. He’s alive, but for a long time he had to sleep sitting down.”

LPG taxis require weekly checkups and painstaking effort from mechanics to spot possible leaks, says Bautista. Maintenance proved too cumbersome that he had his taxi unit reconverted back to regular gas.

In the process, he also removed a potential health hazard for his drivers.

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