The era of leaded gasoline is officially over – and it’s a big deal

Every country in the world has now stopped using leaded petrol for cars and trucks, following Algeria’s recent decision to no longer use the toxic fuel, the UN said. Algeria had been the last country to phase out leaded gasoline.

The news is considered a big win for public health and the environment, after a century of leaded petrol contaminating air, soil and water and seriously affecting people’s health. 

Image credit: Flickr / Steve Snodgrass.

Lead is a naturally occurring heavy metal that can be found in Earth’s crust, especially where volcanic activities happen. It has a low melting point, is easily molded, and can be combined with other metals to form alloys — which is why humans have been using it in one form or another for millennia.

Back in 1921, General Motors discovered that adding a leaded compound (Tetraethyl) to gasoline improved engine performance. There were other additives that could also do the trick (such as ethanol) but lead quickly became the new norm. It was well-known at the time that lead was toxic and dangerous to people’s health, but automakers said the public wouldn’t be harmed by the exposure. 

Turns out, this wasn’t the case.

We are all vulnerable to the exposure of even low amounts of lead, particularly children. The use of leaded gasoline has been linked to heart disease, stroke, and cancer, among other health problems. Lead has also polluted the air, dust, soil, drinking water, and crops for much of the past century.

Almost all gasoline produced around the world contained lead by the 1970s, the UN estimates. Aware of the problems that lead has generated, the UN started the global Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV), seeking to end the use of leaded gasoline globally. Now, with Algeria stopping its sale, the goal has officially been met.

“The successful enforcement of the ban on leaded petrol is a huge milestone for global health and our environment,” Inger Andersen, head of the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) said in a statement. “We are invigorated to change humanity’s trajectory for the better through an accelerated transition to clean vehicles and electric mobility.”

A long-awaited goal

Wealthy countries were the ones to phase out leaded gasoline first. In the United States, vehicles were designed to run on unleaded gasoline starting in the 1970s. While unleaded gasoline was more expensive, it became the norm in the US by the mid-1980’s – although leaded fuel wasn’t fully banned for passenger cars until 1996.

Other rich countries followed the US shortly after, but that wasn’t the case for most of the developing world, where leaded gasoline continued to be used after the 2000s. UNEP’s efforts helped accelerate the transition. North Korea, Afghanistan and Myanmar stopped selling leaded fuel by 2016, leaving a handful of countries still not banning its use. 

The UN estimates that the end of the use of leaded petrol will prevent more than 1.2 million premature deaths a year, increase IQ points in children and save almost $3 trillion for the global economy. It will also support the fulfillment of multiple Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) and restoring ecosystems, especially urban.

Now, the next challenge will be to phase out fossil fuels in cars and enforce the use of cleaner fuel, the UN said. While many countries are incorporating electric cars, 1.2 billion new vehicles will be sold in the coming decades – many of which will use fossil fuels. This is especially the case in developing countries, with fewer EVs in the market.

“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%,” Andersen said in a statement.

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