After A Century Of Use, Why Is The Eradication Of Leaded Petrol Important?

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A sign on a vintage gasoline pump advises that the gas contains lead (tetraethyl). 

Leaded petrol has finally been erased for use in cars and lorries around the world.

In July, Algeria finally ran out of the fuel – which contains tetraethyl lead – signalling the beginning of a more environmentally-friendly era.

Most developed nations managed to ban it by the 80s, but it’s been a slow process encouraging the rest of the world to follow suit.

On Monday, UN secretary general Antonio Guterres declared the eradication of the fuel an “international success story”.

If we can phase out one of the most dangerous polluting fuels in the 20th century, we can absolutely phase out all fossil fuels.Thandile Chinyavanhu, Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner

What is so bad about leaded petrol?

The highly polluting substance has been contaminating countries for close to a century, and is known to cause heart disease, cancer and stroke. It has also been linked to hindering brain development in children.

As Guterres explained: “Ending the use of leaded petrol will prevent more than one million premature deaths each year.”

Executive director of the UN Environment Programme Inger Andersen also said it marked a bigger shift in the way humans approach the climate crisis, adding: “Humanity can learn from and fix mistakes that we’ve made.”

Environmentalist organisation Greenpeace also described it as “the end of one toxic era”, claiming: “It clearly shows that if we can phase out one of the most dangerous polluting fuels of the 20th century, we can absolutely phase out all fossil fuels.”

But why did we introduce it in the first place?

Leaded petrol was found to improve engine performance in vehicles during the early 20s, and its inventor Thomas Midgley was certain it was safe.

By 1924, a crisis at a refinery run by American oil giant Standard Oil triggered a wave of panic about the fuel itself – five workers were killed and dozens more hospitalised after suffering convulsions.

However, these concerns were, for the most part, overlooked.

It wasn’t until the 70s before there was a big shift in petrol use when Japan completely removed lead from its fuel.

Austria was the first country to ban it for road vehicles in 1989. By the 2000s, 86 countries still used the product – it was only banned in the UK in 2000.

The UN launched a global campaign to tackle it in 2002, while North Korea, Myanmar and Afghanistan stopped selling it in 2016.

Why did it take so long to eradicate it?

There are major economic consequences that came with moving away from leaded petrol.

The UN’s environment programme explained: “Many low and middle-income countries still grapple with inadequate fuels and vehicles regulatory standards.”

Some nations unknowingly import fuel with high sulphur levels, unaware of the public health risk.

Other nations – including Afghanistan – have been grappling with wars and less willing to make petrol changes a priority.

The UN also claimed: “The lack of adequate regulation on the importation of used vehicles further complicates the issue. Poor regulation of used vehicle imports in developing countries opens the market to an influx of vehicles that lack the latest technologies required to limit the emission of harmful pollutants.”

Instead, older models are used, which in turn have an impact on the air quality.

There were other behavioural factors at play too.

The UK was also slow to bring the change into law, compared to its western allies, because Brits were reluctant to put unleaded in their cars even when it became cheaper and more accessible.

Is the eradication really a milestone?

Leaded gas is still going to be used for small planes, and lead itself can remain in the environment as dust, according to EuroNews.

Yet, Thadile Chinyavanhu, Greenpeace climate and energy campaigner in South Africa, said: “The end of leaded petrol is more than a celebration of the end of one toxic era.

“The phase-out of leaded petrol in Algeria last month – the last country in the world to have used tetraethyllead – is a testament to the world’s ability to achieve a common goal – together.

“It clearly shows that if we can phase out one of the most dangerous polluting fuels in the 20th century, we can absolutely phase out all fossil fuels.”

However, it’s clear from the most recent IPCC report, which gave humanity a “code red” for limiting a global increase in temperature to just 1.5 degrees Celsius, that there’s still plenty of work to be done.

Campaigners such as Greta Thunberg have continually pushed for the fossil fuel petrol itself to be cut out from everyday life, not just leaded petrol.

It still seems a long way off though, especially as prime minister Boris Johnson could be set to approve the mining of a £16 billion North Sea gas haven.

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