Editorial Feature

Building a Healthier Planet by Eliminating Leaded Petrol

Algeria, the last country in the world to use leaded petrol, finally ran out of reserves in July 2021. This toxic fuel has contaminated the air, soil and water for almost a century and caused a plethora of adverse health effects worldwide.

leaded petrol

Image Credit: Tonographer/Shutterstock.com

The Success of Leaded Petrol Elimination

The elimination of leaded petrol has been hailed as an “international success story” by UN Secretary General António Guterres, who predicted that the move will prevent more than 1.2 million premature deaths worldwide and save $2.45 trillion annually.

What are the Health Effects of Leaded Petrol?

leaded petrol, lead blood test, lead level blood test

Image Credit: Jarun Ontakrai/Shutterstock.com

There is no safe level of exposure to lead; the element can travel through the body via the blood and accumulate in the bones.

Its presence can affect the blood’s natural oxygen-carrying capacity, the nervous system, kidney function, immune system, cardiovascular system, and reproductive and developmental systems.

Lead can also lead to heart disease, cancer, and stroke, and has been linked to problems with brain development in children, who are especially vulnerable to chronic lead poisoning.

It is not just humans who are affected; it is the health of the planet too. Lead from the air can deposit itself in soil and sediments, it can be discharged in waste streams into water bodies, and is a by-product of the mining industry. Its presence can affect the development and reproduction of plants and animals.

Although the toxic fuel is no longer used in cars and lorries worldwide, its effects will still be felt for many years to come. A recent study conducted in London found historical lead is still present in the air, affecting air quality 20 years after it was banned.

A Brief History of Leaded Petrol

Thomas Midgely Jr is the inventor of tetraethyl lead, which was added to petrol in the 1920s to improve engine performance. He also developed chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which improved refrigerators but had a detrimental effect on the ozone layer.

Tetraethyl lead, a single lead atom surrounded by four ethyl units, was first added to petrol in 1922 to prevent knocking – uncontrolled combustion in the engine characterized by a distinctive knock or ping sound. The lead prevented this knock and allowed engines to use higher compression ratios, making them more powerful.

Lead’s poisonous effects became apparent in 1924, when five workers from the Standard Oil refinery in America died and dozens more were hospitalized after suffering convulsions.

Despite widespread concern, Midgely assured people tetraethyl lead was harmless - even washing his hand in the chemical to show just how safe it was. He also said that it would be impossible to detect lead in the air.

Tetraethyl lead continued to be added to petrol until the 1970s when nearly all petrol produced worldwide contained lead. But by the 1980s, most high-income, wealthy countries banned the use of leaded fuel in an attempt to clean up the environment and preserve the health of the planet.

At the turn of the century, 86 nations - mostly low- and middle-income countries - were still using leaded petrol. This prompted the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to embark on their almost 20-year campaign to end the use of leaded petrol.

By 2016, only a handful of countries, including Iraq, Yemen, and Algeria, were still using leaded petrol. Algeria’s stockpile ran out in July, marking the end of almost a century of leaded petrol-fueled vehicles on the road worldwide.

A world unleaded - Eliminating lead in petrol

Video Credit: UN Environment Programme/YouTube.com

Can Leaded Petrol Still be Used?

The UN’s announcement does not mark the end of the use of leaded petrol as it can still be used in motorsports and other off-road uses, and in aviation to fuel piston engine small aircraft for personal and business travel and for flying lessons.

While leaded petrol has been largely replaced by unleaded varieties, the reliance of diesel as a fuel has also increased. Diesel also has detrimental effects on health and is linked to causing cancer, respiratory irritation, and asthma.

It is clear that there is still some way to go before the use of lead as an additive is truly eliminated, but completely removing it from petrol is a huge step in the right direction. The next step will be pushing the use of electric vehicles to completely eradicate fuels that are harmful to the health of the planet.

The Future of Safer and Sustainable Fuels

The elimination of leaded petrol worldwide shows that it is possible to eradicate something once considered a necessity for the benefit of human health, and that of our planet.

The successful enforcement of the ban on leaded petrol is a huge milestone for global health and our environment.

Inger Andersen, Executive Director, UNEP

“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.”

It holds hope that we might be able to do the same with fossil fuels - which is next on the UN’s agenda - to build a healthier planet for future generations.

References and Further Reading

UNEP (2021) Era of leaded petrol over, eliminating a major threat to human and planetary health, UN Environmental Programme. [Online] Available at: https://www.unep.org/news-and-stories/press-release/era-leaded-petrol-over-eliminating-major-threat-human-and-planetary  

BBC (2021) Highly polluting leaded petrol now eradicated from the world, says UN. BBC [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-58388810

Harford, T. (2017) Why did we use leaded petrol for so long? BBC. [Online] Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-40593353

EPA, Basic Information About Lead Poisoning [Online] Available at: https://www.epa.gov/lead-air-pollution/basic-information-about-lead-air-pollution

Horton, H (2021) Leaded petrol era ‘officially over’ as Algeria ends pump sales. The Guardian [Online] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/aug/30/leaded-petrol-era-officially-over-as-algeria-ends-pump-sales

Ravindran, J. (2021) Cars have been guzzling leaded gasoline for 99 years. Not any more. CNN Business. [Online] Available at: https://edition.cnn.com/2021/08/30/business/lead-gasoline-car-climate-change-intl/index.html

Taylor-Smith, K. (2010) Life through the lens. Laboratory News [Online] Available at: https://www.labnews.co.uk/article/2028486/life_through_the_lens

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Kerry Taylor-Smith

Written by

Kerry Taylor-Smith

Kerry has been a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader since 2016, specializing in science and health-related subjects. She has a degree in Natural Sciences at the University of Bath and is based in the UK.


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