The age of leaded gasoline is officially over, marking a well overdue end to a major threat to the health of humans and the planet.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) announced Monday that no country in the world now uses leaded petrol for cars and lorries after Algeria became the last country to make the switch in July 2021.
It’s hard to overstate the harm caused by leaded petrol over the past century. Since 1922, tetraethyllead has been added to petrol to boost engine performance by helping fuel burn more effectively and reduce engine knocking. However, the emissions from this fuel cocktail have been closely linked to heart disease, stroke, and cancer. It’s also known to have a profound effect on the development of the human brain. There’s strong evidence it can reduce IQ scores in people exposed as children and it’s been associated with lower impulse control, which in turn can lead to increases in crime and violence.
The person behind the development of leaded gas was an American chemical engineer named Thomas Midgley Jr. As if his legacy wasn’t stained enough, this guy also introduced the world to chlorofluorocarbon (CFCs) refrigerants, the chemicals responsible for corroding a hole in Earth’s ozone layer. Author Bill Bryson once wrote that Midgley Jr. had “an instinct for the regrettable that was almost uncanny.”
Putting an end to this toxic relationship with leaded gas has not come easily. Most high-income countries outlawed leaded petrol in the 1980s, although many low- and middle-income countries stuck to their use until the early 2000s. By 2006, all of Sub-Saharan Africa was lead-free after a “multi-pronged campaign” that involved raising awareness of its harms, providing technical assistance, and resisting pressure from local oil dealers and producers of lead. Over the next 15 years, the remaining countries – primarily in North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, and Eastern Asia – also edged away from leaded gas through similar efforts.
Some estimates say the phaseout of leaded fuel has helped to prevent more than 1.2 million premature deaths per year, increase IQ points of children, saved $2.45 trillion for the global economy, and even decreased crime rates.
Inger Andersen, Executive Director of UNEP, notes that the end of the leaded petrol era is yet another example of how imposingly gigantic problems, whether its global health or the environment, can be solved through strong action from governments, policymakers, and industry.
“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,” Andersen said in a statement. “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%.”