“Today, we celebrate the culmination of a global, decades-long effort to rid the world of lead in petrol”, tweeted Antonio Gueterres, Secretary General of the United Nations on August 30th.
For the first time since 1923, no driver on the planet will be legally able to fill their tank with lead-infused petrol. After almost 20 years in the making, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) finally marked the end of leaded petrol. The win is expected to net the global economy $2.45 trillion in savings.
The UNEP Executive Director, Inger Andersen, spoke on behalf of the team: “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. The successful enforcement of the ban on leaded petrol is a huge milestone for global health and our environment.”
It may not seem as much right now, but getting to this point took around 2 decades of hard work and campaigning from the UNEP staff. That’s because when lead petrol was created in the 1920s by General Motors engineer Thomas Midgley, it was thought to be safe and cheap. In fact, its inventor would usually smear tetraethyl lead on his hands to prove it was safe, according to Sharon Bertsch McGrayne in her book “Prometheans in the Lab”.
As we know now, leaded exhaust is toxic, and Thomas Midgley would come down with a severe case of lead poisoning. Thirty years after it’s invention, researchers discovered that leaded exhaust was toxic and could be linked to high blood pressure, kidney failure, anaemia, blindness, and infertility, among other conditions and disorders.
But no one took these possible risks seriously back in the day. As leaded fuel became more and more popular in the 1970s, reaching petrol pumps in every country on earth, there was a simultaneous increase in use of leaded fuel and in heart diseases, cancer diagnoses, strokes and developmental delays in children. It wasn’t until American paediatrician Herbert Needleman published a study in 1979 that a global movement against leaded fuel would start. Needleman had discovered that the lead exhaust took away kids’ IQ points and caused a host of behavioural problems.
“Leaded petrol was a huge mistake from the start, even if people may not have known it at the time,” says Rob De Jong, head of sustainable mobility at UNEP. “The world would be dealing with the consequences for a century.”
Following the exposure of the detrimental health effects, Japan was the first country to totally eradicate lead from its fuel in 1972. Dozens of European and Asian countries followed suit. A study from California State University found that every year, bans on leaded fuel saves the lives of 1.2 million people, including 125,000 children who would otherwise die prematurely from cardiovascular, renal and neurological diseases.
However, by the early 21st century, it was clear that developing countries still heavily relied on the leaded fuels, mostly due to the economic implications of switching to non-lead.
UNEP Steps In
If the effects were mostly on health, how come it was the UNEP who stepped in, and not the WHO, for example?
Leaded fuel (tetraethyllead) remains in the environment indefinitely as dust, contributing directly towards air pollution. Soil near motorways and busy roads absorb more lead. Plants that absorb this leaded soil can also take in the dust through their leaves. All in all, it’s simple presence in air, soils and water greatly affects human health. Now, more than ever, environment and health were inextricably linked.
In 2002, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa, supported by the UN, a group of environmentalists, scientists, government officials and business leaders came together with the same goal: eliminate leaded petrol. The mix of science, public education and policy work would come to be known as the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles.
The partnership would feature two very distinct groups that were usually like water and oil: clean air campaigners and oil industry executives. But they joined forces when finding that every year, leaded fuel bans save more than 1.2 million lives while helping the global economy avoid $2.4 trillion in healthcare expenses and other costs.
“This type of partnership had never been tried before, some people said it would never work. Some founding members were angered that decades after being phased out in rich countries like the United States, leaded petrol was still being sold in poor ones.”, says De Jong, one of its architects.
The most vulnerable people in the most vulnerable countries were getting poisoned, getting the dirtiest fuel. In 2002, leaded petrol was still being used in 117 countries, including all of Africa.
Taking on the World
Led by De Jong and a team of 15 UNEP staffers, the Partnership launched a campaign to rid Africa of leaded petrol. The campaign helped governments update air pollution standards, which had not been changed since colonial times. The Partnership published a study that debunked the myth that unleaded fuel would damage car engines. It funded blood testing in places like Ghana and Kenya, which found elevated levels of lead in children’s blood.
Although the work in Sub-Saharan Africa was quickly successful, the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles still had a lot more ground to tackle. During the next 15 years, the team would take on stubborn governments in North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Asia and persuade them into abandoning leaded fuel.
The strongest resistance, however, came from the world’s last remaining maker of tetraethyl lead, Innospec, which was based in the United States and the United Kingdom. In 2010, the company would go down for corruption. The Coordinated Global Enforcement Action by the US Department of Justice, Office of Foreign Assets Control, Securities and Exchange Commission and United Kingdom’s Serious Fraud Office held a court hearing over Innospec. The company pleaded guilty to a “12-count information charging wire fraud in connection with Innospec’s payment of kickbacks to the former Iraqi government under the UN Oil for Food Program (OFFP), as well as FCPA violations in connection with bribe payments it made to officials in the Iraqi Ministry of Oil. Innospec also admitted to selling chemicals to Cuban power plants, in violation of the U.S. embargo against Cuba”.
According to UNEP, “By 2020, Algeria was the last country on earth where drivers could buy leaded petrol. But in September last year, the government announced state-owned oil company Sonatrach would stop making the fuel and over the next 10 months Algeria decontaminated its storage facilities and distribution networks. In July, the government confirmed that service stations were no longer selling leaded petrol, 99 years and seven months after its invention”
“That a UN-backed alliance of governments, businesses and civil society was able to successfully rid the world of this toxic fuel is testament to the power of multilateralism to move the world towards sustainability and a cleaner, greener future. We urge these same stakeholders to take inspiration from this enormous achievement to ensure that now that we have cleaner fuels, we also adopt cleaner vehicles standards globally – the combination of cleaner fuels and vehicles can reduce emissions by more than 80 per cent.”, said Inger Andersen.
On August 30th, the toxic legacy officially came to an end. At a press conference in Nairobi, Kenya, UNEP announced that Alegria, the last country to use leaded petrol, had phased it out.