Every single nation on the globe has now stopped using leaded gas for cars and trucks, after Algeria — the final holdout — recently decided to ditch the toxic fuel additive, according to the UN.
Algeria had been the last country on earth to phase out leaded gasoline, a campaign which began in the 1970’s in the United States, where vehicles were first designed to use unleaded gasoline.
Other wealthy nations followed, as a result of the UN’s initiative called the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV), leading the way to outlaw the use of leaded gasoline globally.
Leaded gas now a thing of the past
Unleaded gasoline was and still is more expensive, it quickly became the norm in America by the mid-1980’s, despite leaded fuel not being completely banned for passenger cars until 1996.
This week’s news is viewed as a landmark win for public health and the environment globally, after a century of leaded gasoline contaminating the air, soil and water, leading to an array of health problems.
Inger Andersen, the head of the UN Environmental Program (UNEP) said in a statement on Tuesday “The successful enforcement of the ban on leaded petrol is a huge milestone for global health and our environment. We are invigorated to change humanity’s trajectory for the better through an accelerated transition to clean vehicles and electric mobility.”
Andersen noted “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%.”
Lead is a naturally-occurring heavy metal originating in the Earth’s crust, especially near volcanoes. For millennia, it has historically had a vast array of uses, from lead pipes, roofing, canning food, and even the moldings around stained glass — where it is still used, since nothing else can compare to how easily it is melted and molded.
It is so easily melted that it forms useful alloys with a host of other metals, including tin, in the production of pewter, and other metal wares.
General Motors engineers started adding lead to gas in 1921
Engineers at General Motors discovered back in 1921 — exactly one century ago — that adding a leaded compound called Tetraethyl to gasoline improved the performance of engines.
Other additives such as ethanol, derived from corn, also had this effect, but the widely-produced lead of the time quickly became the additive of choice for all vehicles. Incredibly, lead’s toxicity was already well-known at the time, but automakers maintained that the public wouldn’t be harmed by the exposure to vehicles’ exhaust.
As has been proven many times over now, all humans are vulnerable to lead exposure, even in very small amounts, with children particularly at risk, since lead poisoning can preclude the future production of brain cells.
Leaded gasoline has also been linked to heart disease, stroke, and cancer in human populations. Lead that has come into the environment as a result of automobile exhaust has polluted the air, dust, soil, drinking water, and even food crops all over the world for one entire century now.
While the wealthier nations of the world quickly climbed on the unleaded gas bandwagon, the developing world lagged. Leaded gasoline was still the norm there as late as the early 2000s. The efforts of UNEP helped facilitate the switchover to the more environmentally-acceptable alternative over the past decades.
By 2016, the countries of North Korea, Afghanistan and Myanmar had finally stopped selling leaded fuel, leaving just a handful of countries still using it.
The UN estimates that the abolishing of leaded gas will prevent more than 1.2 million premature deaths every year, increase IQ points in children and result in a savings of almost $3 trillion for the world economy.
The environmental arm of the UN also believes that it will also support the fulfillment of a number of its Sustainable Development Goals and restore ecosystems, especially those in urban areas which are subjected to high levels of vehicle exhaust.
Now, it appears that the next environmental challenge for the world will be to phase out the use of fossil fuels in vehicles and enforce the use of cleaner fuel, according to the UN.
Consumers in many countries are beginning to use electric or hybrid cars, despite the major problems involved in the production of their batteries – which also involves a great deal of lead.
In addition, projections say that a total of 1.2 billion new vehicles will be sold in the next few decades, many of which will use gasoline. This is especially true in developing countries, which have fewer electrical vehicles in use now.