Finally, the end of leaded gas

After decades of international pressure by a UN group, leaded gasoline is no longer being produced.

The last leaded fuel has finally disappeared from gas stations. The last country in the world to sell it: Algeria.

“It is a big day,” said Jane Akumu, lead Africa program officer for sustainable mobility at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Akumu is one of a cadre of international transportation and children’s health experts who have focused for decades on the issue of lead in fuel and paint.

For the past 19 years, country-by-country efforts to eradicate leaded fuel have been carried out by the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, a group of 73 industry groups, governments, NGOs, and others under the aegis of UNEP. But why did this take so long, when the understanding of lead as a health hazard goes back more than a century?

Companies began creating lead additives in 1921 to fix knocking or pinging in engines that could damage them and waste gasoline. The leaded product was highly promoted and popular, even though there were cleaner alternatives— based on alcohol, for example.

All the lead that went into gas tanks globally—three grams in each gallon—came out the exhaust pipe as particles that lingered in the air before settling on surfaces. Gasoline coated the world in lead.

By the early 1970s, researchers were certain enough of lead’s health effects to take their results to the newly created U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Japan was first to ban leaded gas in 1980. Austria, Canada, Slovakia, Denmark, and Sweden followed. In the United States and Germany, the final phase-out of leaded fuel came in 1996, a quarter century ago.

The science of adverse health effects accumulates

Evidence of lead’s harm mounted after the bans. 

Lead impacts nearly every physiological domain in the human body, said Amit Bhattacharya, a professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati. “The motor, cognitive, hepatic, kidney, visual systems, anything you think of, it can destroy it.”

Mary Jean Brown, on the teaching faculty at the Harvard Chan School of Public Health, described the act of reading and the growing understanding of lead’s potential assault on it. “When you are trying to read, there are several places that are trying to be integrated. You have to see a letter, which is a symbol, put it together with other symbols, connect that to a pronunciation, connect that to an object or an activity.”

Children who have been exposed to lead take a blow to these processes that can amount to 10 IQ points.

“It was always a concentration thing with me,” a 22-year-old named Tony told the national radio program Living on Earth in 2003. “School was rough, man. From first grade to 11th.” Tony was one of 300 people from Cincinnati taking part in the longest running study in the world of people who were exposed to lead in the womb.

Less widely known than lead’s learning effects on the brain are the ways that it affects balance in both kids and adults. That’s been the focus of Battacharya’s work. He and a team found a way to detect lead-induced impairments with a quick, non-invasive test that can be administered starting at age five. Found early, some problems with balance and motion may be treatable. Another researcher, Kim Cecil, shed light on the possible pathway, Battacharya said.

“They didn’t have the neurons in the brain that should allow them to maintain balance. It was gone. The lead took it away,” Bhattacharya said. Lead can travel across the blood-brain barrier, he explained: It can go anywhere it wants.

The more they look, the more researchers discover lead’s reach. Currently, Bhattacharya is finding early bone fragility in women that is associated with lead exposure. “Already at the young age of 30, their fragility parameters are worse than someone 47 years of age,” he said.

Research in the past 20 years indicates that no level of lead in children’s blood is safe.

The international push to eliminate leaded fuel

In the early 2000s, 25 sub-Saharan countries agreed in the UN-sponsored Dakar Declaration to phase out leaded petrol. The UNEP partnership formed and began its work.

Luc Gnacadja, the former environment minister of Benin, only needed one briefing on lead’s health effects to act. “The cost of inaction versus the benefit of action, knowing that gasoline was costing 1.2 percent of our GDP (in lost earning potential), helped a lot in making our decision,” he said. The minister soon banned leaded gasoline from Benin.

But 117 countries in the world still allowed it. Progress was swift at first, said Rob de Jong, head of UNEP’s sustainable mobility unit. “Within 10 years almost all had banned it. There were 10 left that took us another 10 years” to persuade, he said.

The UNEP team also encountered misinformation. In some cases, it was simply lack of familiarity with the new unleaded product. But people were also hearing that their older, often used, cars could only run properly on leaded gas. “There were myths that were put out there,” said Inger Anderson, executive director of UNEP though she did not say who initiated them.

In 2010 Innospec Ltd., a leading manufacturer of gasoline’s lead additive—and thought by then to be the last one still in business—pled guilty in U.K. court to bribing Indonesian government and refinery officials in an effort to get them to buy the additive. The idea was that a stockpile would give refineries a stake in encouraging consumer demand for leaded fuel, de Jong said. Innospec was fined $12.7 million. In 2015, a former director of the Indonesian state-owned refiner Pertamina was found guilty of receiving bribes from an intermediary acting on behalf of Innospec Ltd.

It was not the only instance of pressure from the lead industry. Don Ryan, then executive director of the Alliance for Healthy Homes, said in the 2003 Living on Earth documentary, “Every step of the way, the lead industry challenged the scientific evidence, ridiculed the reality of lead’s low-level health effects, and basically, claimed this problem was being completely overblown by scientists.”

But Akumu and de Jong and the rest of the partnership were making progress.

And a distinction soon became clear. Countries that had refineries differed from countries that imported all of their refined gasoline.

Kenya, for example, one of the largest countries in Africa, was a refiner. “So rather than going to Kenya and saying, ‘You have to invest in the refinery,’ we went to neighboring Rwanda, Burundi, Uganda, Tanzania and said, ‘You could just as well buy unleaded stuff. It is much healthier,’” de Jong said. These countries then went to Kenya and demanded it provide unleaded fuel or they would purchase their fuel elsewhere.

The team also used peer pressure, de Jong said. They pulled out maps showing which countries had gotten the lead out. “Ministers would say, ‘Why are we still red on this map? And everyone around us is blue.’”

Akumu also discovered the value of training gas pump attendants. “They became our ambassadors,” she said, as they explained to customers that unleaded fuel would not hurt their cars and was better for them.

The partnership also supported local blood testing in Hungary, Serbia, Ghana, and Kenya. It showed how quickly blood lead levels plummet once lead is removed from fuel. It funded ambient air testing. Then it used the results as persuasion points.

That data were absolutely clear. Levels of lead in people’s blood dropped when lead was removed from fuel.

“The average blood level of children in the United States in 1986 was probably 8. Now it is 0.9 [μg per deciliter],” said Brown, who is approaching her 40th year working on lead issues.

By 2016 only Algeria, Yemen, and Iraq were holdouts.

Finally, the Algerian refinery used up its lead stockpile last month. UNEP estimates this will prevent 1.2 million premature deaths; avoided health costs and regained human potential could be worth $2.4 trillion annually.

For Akumu, more challenges await. Next is removing sulfur from diesel and with it, a major global lung cancer risk from diesel particulate.

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