Era of leaded petrol over as last reserves exhausted

Although most high-income countries had prohibited the use of leaded petrol by the 1980s, almost all low- and middle-income countries were still using the noxious fuel until as late as 2002. (Credit: Keystone/Christian Beutler)

The world has rid itself of leaded petrol. The planet’s last refinery closed last month in Algeria after a 19 year cross-sectoral effort to eliminate the pollutant, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) announced on Monday. 

Lead petrol has been killing over 1.2m people a year. It causes heart disease, stroke, and cancer and has been a leading cause of harm to brain development. Studies show that exposure to the chemical can reduce a person’s IQ by five to ten points. Periods of high rates of violent crime in some communities are linked to childhood exposure. Its effect on nature has been little better.

Inger Andersen, UNEP executive director, hailed the end of leaded petrol as a “huge milestone” for global health and our environment.

“Overcoming a century of deaths and illnesses that affected hundreds of millions and degraded the environment worldwide, we are invigorated to change humanity’s trajectory for the better through an accelerated transition to clean vehicles and electric mobility.”

How the toxic relationship with lead began.  In 1921, a chemical engineer at General Motors, Thomas Midgley Jr., discovered that he could make cars run more powerfully by mixing gasoline with Tetraethyllead, a compound identified in the mid-19th century. Lead petrol makes a car more powerful by withstanding higher compression before igniting.

By 1924, many workers had died from exposure to leaded petrol. In response to the outcry from doctors and journalists, Midgley famously washed his hands in the substance to prove its safety.

A government investigation into its health effects funded by General Motors concluded that lead petrol was not harmful. It was not until the 1960s that widespread recognition of the fuel’s devastating health and environmental impacts gained momentum.

Thomas Midgley Jr., right, chairman of the Board of American Chemical Society, demonstrates the original morse telegraph machine to Conway P. Coe, U.S. Commissioner of Patents, in Washington, D.C. Midgley invented leaded petrol while working at General Motors. (Keystone/AP Photo)

Nearly all gasoline until the 1970s was leaded, despite knowledge of lead’s danger since ancient Rome, as well as the existence of less damaging (if more expensive) alternatives like ethyl-alcohol-mixed petrol.

“Industry rushed to adopt this first and cheapest technology that works, despite its grave implications for mental health and for the environment, while ignoring sustainable and clean technologies. That sounds familiar,” Andersen said.

The long road to end leaded petrol. Most developed countries phased out petrol by the early 2000s. In 2002, leaded petrol still powered vehicles in 82 developing countries, however.

To end the harm against people and nature, over 75 private and public sector leaders banded together in the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV), led by UNEP.

By 2016, leaded petrol remained common in only Algeria, Iraq, and Yemen, with Algeria marking the last country to phase out the toxic fuel.

The elimination of leaded petrol in ground vehicles is “a testament to the world’s ability to achieve a common goal – together,” said Thandile Chinyavanhu, Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner in South Africa.

The fuel’s elimination will save $2.45 trillion a year, UNEP estimates, reflecting the economic side of lives and nature saved.

The work is not over, Andersen reminded. Leaded fuels are still used for air travel, and lead batteries are still common. Unleaded fossil fuels remain problematic. But there is much to learn from PCFV’s success, she said.

“Now we must apply these lessons elsewhere. In developing better vehicle standards to deal with carbon dioxide emissions from the global transport sector – we transition away from fossil fuels. In ridding the world of single use plastics, in restoring forests and other degraded ecosystems, in protecting wildlife – we can do this together in partnership. But we will only succeed if we work together, as we have done to end leaded fuels,” said Andersen.