The World Is Officially Free of Leaded Gasoline

The World Is Officially Free of Leaded Gasoline
Photo: Gregorio Borgia, AP

The UN Environment Program announced on Monday that the world has officially banished leaded gasoline. The end of the use of this dangerous fuel has been a long time coming, and the day is finally here: According to the UN, the world’s last reserves of leaded gasoline were used up last month at a refinery in Algeria.

While the sale of leaded gasoline — or leaded petrol, as the rest of the world calls it — has been banned in the U.S. for decades, it’s posed a big problem in some parts of the world. Less than 20 years ago, the UN said, there were still 117 countries that used leaded petrol, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa and other countries with lower GDPs. Leaded gasoline poses a huge public health risk, with lots of devastating impacts: Prolonged, low-level lead exposure can have impacts on basically every system in the body, and is linked to blood pressure problems, kidney disease, heart disease, and problems with fertility. Children are particularly sensitive to the impacts of lead, with lead exposure being linked to a whole host of problems including behavioural issues and lower IQs.

In 2002, the UN formed the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles in order to work together to get leaded petrol permanently out of the world for good. The coalition included representatives from environment ministries across the world, independent experts, and industry representatives, all of whom worked for nearly two decades to solve this problem.

“This wasn’t easy,” Inger Andersen, the executive director of the UNEP, said on a press call Monday. “We had to overcome resistance from companies producing the lead additive. We sparked investments to replace lead while maintaining the same octane levels. We overcame concerns regarding the pricing of unleaded fuels, and we supported countries dealing with conflicts and stocks of [leaded fuel]. The success we note and celebrate today provides some clear lessons on dealing with environmental challenges; lessons on the need for independent science, for innovation, for free media, and for clear and objective end goals.”

Leaded gas was originally developed in the 1920s by American car companies in order to improve efficiency and eliminate noise problems in engines. From the get-go, auto and chemical manufacturers knew that the additive they were using — tetraethyl lead — was poisonous. Five workers at a refinery died from lead exposure the second year leaded gas was on the market, and the original inventor of leaded gasoline, a General Motors engineer, himself contracted lead poisoning at least once.

Car companies tightened up safety regulations in manufacturing the product, where the most serious exposure occurred. But a federal panel convened by the Surgeon General in 1926 to study the health impacts acknowledged that emissions from leaded gas could pose problems in years to come, writing in a report that the fuel could “constitute a menace to the general public after prolonged use or other conditions not foreseen at this time.” Nevertheless, the government greenlit the fuel for sale.

That “menace to the general public” started to make itself known much sooner than regulators may have expected, as growing evidence in the 1960s and 1970s revealed numerous of health problems caused by lead exposure. Before countries began phasing out leaded gas in the 1970s, fumes from cars accounted for 90% of global airborne lead pollution. The Environmental Protection Agency phased out lead in gasoline in 1986 and officially banned the sale of the very small amount of leaded gas still sold in the U.S. in 1997, but leaded gas was still in widespread use across much of the world at the turn of the millennium.

The success in Monday’s announcement is far from marking a total victory over lead; automakers’ lead push will be with us for years after the phase-out. Lead from vehicle emissions can settle into soil and be released into the air when that soil is disturbed, and locations across the U.S. currently still have high levels of lead in topsoil. Lead emissions can linger in the air, too. A study published earlier this summer found that a third of the lead emissions in London’s air were from leaded fuels banned more than 20 years ago. The aviation industry, meanwhile, still uses leaded fuel in flights, causing health problems for people living near airports.

And while the UNEP success shows how important it is for everyone to work together to solve a pressing environmental problem, the way the lead crisis was solved may not synch up for climate change. Several panelists on the UNEP call where Andersen spoke mentioned the “critical role” the oil and gas industry (including giants like Exxon) played in the partnership, including leading local lead phase-out programs in specific countries, and drew comparisons between how industry helped with this effort and how it will be crucial in leading the energy transition.

That made me raise my eyebrows a bit. It seems a little bit easier to convince an industry to stop selling a deadly additive it inserted into its products, versus convincing it to abandon producing its major moneymaker altogether, and soon. That’s doubly true when you look at the decades of evidence oil companies will do just about anything, including lying about their role in causing the climate crisis, to keep the fossil fuels flowing. Still, in an era where it often seems like global progress on climate change, plastics use, and other pressing environmental issues is in short supply, it’s good to celebrate a success — and take some notes for the future.

“Now we must apply these lessons elsewhere, in developing better vehicle emissions standards to eliminate carbon dioxide from the global transportation sector, in the transition away from fossil fuels, in ridding the world of single-use plastics, in restoring forests and other degraded ecosystems, in protecting wildlife,” Andersen said. “We can do this together in partnership, but we will only succeed if we work together.”