Residential buildings are seen shrouded in smog in Noida on the outskirts of New Delhi

World finally rid of leaded petrol, UNEP announces

Image credit: Malini Menon

The use of leaded fuel has finally been phased out and for the first time since 1923 no driver on the planet will be legally able to fill their tank with lead-infused petrol.

At a press conference yesterday, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) announced that the last country to use leaded petrol, Algeria, has now stopped using the fuel.

“The successful enforcement of the ban on leaded petrol is a huge milestone for global health and our environment,” said Inger Andersen, UNEP's executive director.

UNEP had been leading a two decade-long campaign to ban leaded fuel, which has been shown to cause numerous health problems in humans. Current estimates suggest that leaded fuel bans save more than 1.2 million lives annually around the world, while helping the global economy avoid $2.4tr in healthcare expenses and other costs.

Scientists at General Motors first started adding lead to fuel in 1921 as a way to stop 'knocks' in their vehicles’ engines that could vibrate the engine wildly enough to damage it. The lead move also increased fuel economy and boosted the overall performance of the engine. However, the increasing popularity of leaded fuel also caused epidemics of heart disease, cancer, strokes and developmental delays in children all around the world.

While wealthier nations began phasing leaded fuel out in the 1970s – the UK banned it altogether in 2000 – some 86 nations were still using it in the early 2000s. This led UNEP to launch a long-term campaign of trying to eradicate it by driving investment in newer technologies and overcoming concerns around price.

This also included lobbying petrol-importing countries to buy their fuel from the global market if local producers refused to churn out unleaded petrol.

Algeria was the last country to use the fuel, which was still being made by the state-owned oil company Sonatrach. It promised to stop making the fuel over a 10-month period in 2020, during which its storage facilities and distribution networks were decontaminated.

In July, the government confirmed that service stations were no longer selling leaded petrol, 99 years and seven months after its invention.

“It was a proud moment for the sustainable mobility team and partners,” said UNEP’s Jane Akumu. “We joked that we could now put in our retirement papers.”

According to a study in June, airborne particles in London’s atmosphere remain highly lead-enriched, compared to natural background levels, as historic emissions that have settled get stirred up from passing winds.

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