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Era of toxic fuel over: UN announces end of highly polluting leaded petrol worldwide

NAIROBI, Kenya: The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) has officially announced an end of leaded petrol for vehicles and there is now no country in the world that uses leaded petrol. Algeria used the last stockpile of leaded petrol.

The toxic fuel has contaminated air, soil and water for almost a century.

It can cause heart disease, cancer and stroke, and has been linked to problems with brain development in children.

Most high-income countries had banned the fuel by the 1980s, but it was only in July that Algeria – the last country still to use leaded petrol – ran out.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres called the eradication of leaded petrol an “international success story”.

“Ending the use of leaded petrol will prevent more than one million premature deaths each year from heart disease, strokes and cancer, and it will protect children whose IQs are damaged by exposure to lead,” he said.

Lead started being added to petrol in the early 1920s in order to improve engine performance.

The alarm was raised as early as 1924, when five workers were declared dead and dozens more hospitalised after suffering convulsions at a refinery run by the US oil giant Standard Oil.

But despite this, lead continued to be added to all petrol globally until the 1970s.

Wealthier countries then started phasing out its use – but three decades later, in the early 2000s, there were still 86 nations using leaded petrol.

North Korea, Myanmar and Afghanistan stopped selling leaded petrol by 2016, leaving only a handful of countries, including Iraq, Yemen and Algeria, still providing the toxic fuel in the latter half of the last decade.

The UN’s environmental body UNEP has worked with governments, private companies and civic groups to end the use of leaded petrol since 2002.

“Leaded fuel illustrates in a nutshell the kind of mistakes humanity has been making at every level of our societies,” Inger Andersen, UNEP executive director, said.

But, she added, eradicating the fuel shows that “humanity can learn from and fix mistakes that we’ve made”.

Environmentalist campaign body Greenpeace hailed what it called “the end of one toxic era”.

“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,” Thandile Chinyavanhu, climate campaigner at Greenpeace Africa, said.

In 1921, researchers at General Motors discovered that adding a compound called tetraethyl lead to gasoline could improve engine performance. (Not-so-fun fact: Thomas Midgley Jr., a scientist who played a key role in what proved to be a calamitous discovery, also developed chlorofluorocarbons, a class of refrigerants that went on to damage the ozone layer.)

There were other additives that could serve the same purpose — today, ethanol is widely used as a far safer alternative. But lead quickly became the standard.

At the time, it was well known that lead was a poison, and there was concern over the risk to workers exposed to the dangerous additive.

But researchers working for automakers, oil companies and chemical giants said that the general public would not be harmed by low levels of exposure through leaded gasoline.

That turned out to be disastrously false. Children, in particular, are vulnerable to even minute amounts of lead exposure, and the use of leaded gasoline has been linked to lower IQs and higher rates of violent crime.

Lead exposure also causes heart disease, cancer and other diseases, and when burned in an engine, lead can easily contaminate air, water and soil.

It took decades for scientists to establish the damage that leaded gasoline was causing. By that point, virtually all the gasoline in the world had lead added to it.

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