An end to leaded petrol

After decades of campaigning, leaded petrol has finally been eradicated globally
07 September 2021

Interview with 

Rob de Long, United Nations Environment Programme


A fuel gauge for a car


This month it’s smiles all round as the world is finally rid of leaded petrol. After 20 years of campaigns and close collaboration between international groups, Algeria, the last country still pumping leaded fuel, finally switched fully to unleaded. But why did we use leaded petrol in the first place, and how was it putting us at risk? Eva Higginbotham spoke to the United Nations Environment Program’s Rob de Long...

Rob - So some decades ago the whole world was using leaded petrol because in the early 20th century, around the 1920s, it found out if you add some lead to fuel, it will increase its octane, which means that it will prevent pre ignition in the cylinders and the engine will just run much better. So when they found that out, basically all fuel in the world, all petrol in the world they started adding lead. And in the 1960s and 70, the whole world, all the fuel used was this leaded fuel.

Eva - And what's the problem with adding lead?

Rob - The problem with adding lead is that it doesn't combust in the engine, but it works as a catalyst. So it goes out with the exhaust into the atmosphere. And of course, where our cars are driving, people are breathing, so everybody was breathing these small lead particles that were nicely dispersed through car exhausts. And breathing in that lead, it goes in your lungs and even through your lungs, into your blood. And in the sixties and seventies, or fifties and sixties I would say, it was found that this lead in your blood is really bad for your body and has multiple health impacts. Actually, doctors say that there's not a single part in your body that is not negatively affected by the fact that you will lead in your blood.

Eva - So we tried to move away from lead because it was having bad health effects on the people who live nearby.

Rob - That's not the only reason. So it was indeed having serious health effects, but it was also preventing the mental development of children's brains. And so that was also known to restrict the mental development, and children growing up in an environment where leaded petrol was used were shown to have between 5 and 10 IQ points less. And a third reason is that in the seventies, filters were invented that can filter out the exhaust, they're called catalytic converters, and are now standard in every car. But those catalytic converters cannot run with leaded petrol, and so those filters that can filter 80 to 90% of pollution from cars could only work when we would switch to fuel without that.

Eva - So how did that transition get started, moving from everyone having leaded petrol, to away from that?

Rob - You can imagine it was a major transition. Every single car in the world was going around on leaded petrol and now we had to go to unleaded petrol. And that worked quite quickly in the developed world - in the eighties and seventies, eighties, and nineties, most of the developed countries banned the adding of lead to fuel and soon they were unleaded. However, at the beginning of the 21st century, there were still more than 100 countries using leaded petrol, and almost all of them were in low and middle income countries where these programs had not been started.

Eva - If you need the lead to make the engines work better, how have we now gotten away with not using it?

Rob - There are different ways to compensate for removing the lead. The most common way is you change the refinery process - that needs some investment. And the fuel that you produce - a fuel is a mixture of different components, the components are slightly different - and you can then increase the octane with changing the refinery process, increase the quality of the fuel, increase the octane level. There's also other possibilities. You can add another additive instead of lead, ethanol or manganese. So there are different ways that developed countries managed basically to completely eliminate leaded petrol and keep the same quality of fuel.

Eva - And what were some of the challenges in getting to the final transition of no one using leaded petrol?

Rob - Well there were a number of challenges for low and middle income countries, the global south ,to follow the developed countries. Some of these challenges were one, there was a lack of awareness among consumers. So people have been driving around using leaded petrol for decades, and now this product came, unleaded, it was costing slightly more. They were known to it, and there was no communication about why they should take this. Another issue was that there was resistance from local oil traders and the chemical industry to stop using this additive. People were making a profit out of it, and they were trying to stop it. And there were these myths going around -  when you had a very old fleet of vehicles, you couldn't use this new modern fuel, your cars would break down. Your engines would break down. In many countries we worked with over the years, ministers and decision-makers said, well, unleaded is nice for the developed countries, but in our case, when we have an old fleet, our cars can't take it. These are all not true. These are myths. And we debunked them with publications and showing that actually it did work, but it took a bit of time and a bit of effort. In addition to that, the producers of the additive, they actually bribed some government officials to keep buying the lead additive and keep adding it to fuels. And so some of these countries, their refineries, they created huge stockpiles. So those were a number of challenges we had to overcome in the past years to get the whole world to move to unleaded petrol

Eva - What sort of benefits can we expect moving forward then?

Rob - Studies have shown that switching to unleaded petrol saves an estimated 1.2 million premature deaths every year. So this is a major environmental success and health success. But also the impacts were also economic impacts, there were impacts even on crime rates - stopping with leaded petrol crime rates dropped dramatically 20 years after we stopped exposing our children to leaded petrol and affecting their brains. So there are many, many major impacts of this campaign that we today basically closed because there is no more leaded petrol in the world. At least no more automotive leaded fuels.


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