Finally, the world says goodbye to lead-infused fuel after a century

Wednesday September 08 2021

Lead has been used since the 1920s to improve engine performance in vehicles. PHOTO | AFP


The world has officially said goodbye to leaded fuel bringing an end to a toxic legacy that started over the past century and blamed for a multitude of health issues.

Hailed as an “international success story”, for the first time since 1923, no driver on the planet will be legally able to fill their tank with lead-infused petrol. Last month, fuel stations in Algeria — the only country that was left with stocks of leaded fuel — stopped offering it to drivers.

Lead has been used since the 1920s to improve engine performance in vehicles. But leaded exhaust is toxic and is suspected to cause heart disease, cancer, stroke and developmental delays in children. The environment suffered too, with air and soil contamination being just two examples.

The United Nations Environment Programme (Unep), at a press conference in Nairobi, on Monday, announced that the last country to use leaded petrol, Algeria, had phased out the fuel.

On Monday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said the global phase-out marked the end of a 20-year campaign to eliminate a major threat to the health of people and the planet.

“Lead in fuel has run out of gas — thanks to the co-operation of governments in developing nations, thousands of businesses and millions of ordinary people,” he said.


The Unep-led initiative is expected to save the global economy about $2.45 trillion. “Ending the use of leaded petrol will prevent more than one million premature deaths each year from heart disease, strokes and cancer,” said Mr Guterres, adding, “And it will protect children whose IQs are damaged by exposure to lead.”

“The successful enforcement of the ban on leaded petrol is a huge milestone for global health and our environment,” said Inger Andersen, the Unep executive director, adding, “Overcoming a century of deaths and illnesses that affected hundreds of millions and degraded the environment worldwide, we’re invigorated to change humanity’s trajectory for the better through an accelerated transition to clean vehicles and electric mobility.”

While most high-income nations had prohibited leaded petrol use by the 1980s, almost all low and middle-income countries were still using it as late as 2002, when Unep began the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, a public-private initiative bringing together all stakeholders, to raise awareness and overcome resistance from local oil dealers and producers of lead.

However, Unep said continued growth in vehicle use globally is still contributing to air, water and soil pollution, as well as the climate crisis.