It's finally over. One hundred years after leaded gasoline was first introduced, it is finally no longer used in automobiles and road vehicles anywhere in the world. Algeria was the last country to use leaded gas (it had stockpiles of it and wanted to use it up), and in July 2021 they made the switch to unleaded gas. Finally.
Tetraethyl lead was initially added to gas to boost engine performance, but numerous studies for years showed that the lead was harmful to health and the environment (it's still in soil and dust). A partial list of harms to human health: heart disease, strokes, cancer, chronic disease, lower IQ in children, brain damage (it's neurotoxic), lower impulse control. Scientists now feel that there is NO safe lead level - that all lead exposure causes harm.
Of course, the lead industry fought hard and dirty to keep lead in gas (and other products such as paint), but even so leaded gas for cars was eventually banned in the US (in 1990s). A 2011 study estimated that the phaseout of leaded gas increased global GDP by 4% or $2.4 trillion, raised IQs, lowered crime, and prevented 1.2 million early deaths per year.
However, while leaded gas is now allowed to be sold for vehicles in the US, lead is still allowed to be used in aviation fuel for aircraft. Eh...
On Monday, the United Nations announced an environmental and public health milestone: the end of the use of leaded gasoline in automobiles and road vehicles worldwide.
The last holdout was Algeria, which had large stockpiles of leaded gasoline; in July, those stockpiles ran out, and Algeria has now made the transition to unleaded gasoline.
Lead poisoning causes immense societal harm: brain damage, chronic illness, lowered IQ, elevated mortality. Lead exposure in childhood has been linked with violent crime rates decades later. Extremely high lead levels can lead to seizures, coma, and death. Lower levels tend to cause less detectable harm, but there’s no safe level of lead exposure: Scientists’ current best guess is that any lead exposure at all causes harm.
Many of lead’s dangers have been known for decades. Leaded gasoline was invented by a General Motors research lab in the 1920s, and already at that time, there were people noticing that children exposed to high levels of lead suffered devastating health consequences. But Thomas Midgley Jr., leaded gasoline’s inventor, campaigned to convince the world that it was safe. (Midgley also invented ozone-depleting refrigerants called CFCs, which would end up being banned by the 1987 Montreal Protocol; he’s been called a “one-man environmental disaster.”)
For more than 50 years after the invention of leaded gas, virtually all cars around the world pumped aerosolized lead into the air.
In the 1970s, though, following more research firmly establishing lead’s harms, rich countries started addressing the problem. In the US, the Clean Air Act imposed restrictions on lead pollution, and a few years later, the Environmental Protection Agency mandated that gas pumps offer unleaded gas, as the first step toward a transition away from leaded fuels.
The EPA estimates that the amount of lead used in automotive gasoline in the US fell by 99 percent between 1976 and 1989. Measured blood lead levels followed. Crime rates dropped, too. Those benefits were realized even though the lead used in gasoline (and in paint and other consumer products) before bans on its use is still widespread in our soil and dust and still posing a major public health challenge.
In 1996, the EPA completely banned leaded gasoline for on-road vehicles. Japan and Europe issued their own bans over the same time period. In 2000, China and India followed.
In 117 countries around the world, though — largely low-income ones — leaded gasoline was still in use.
In 2002, the UN’s Environment Program (UNEP) launched a sustained effort to phase out leaded gasoline, called the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles.
The UN’s initiative saw fast adoption in sub-Saharan Africa, where 25 countries signed on to a plan to de-lead their gasoline in 2005. It made slower progress elsewhere, especially in the Middle East, where many countries had enormous stockpiles of leaded gasoline.
In the US, leaded gasoline in cars has been illegal for more than 25 years. But the lead from that gasoline has settled in the soil and dust, and still contributes to poisoning children today.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks lead exposure across the country. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, it found that in most states, between 1 and 5 percent of children had more than 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood — enough to potentially cause them serious health problems and lifelong harm. (Children exposed to lead in the US today are mostly exposed through soil and dust ingestion. Often, dust has lead in it because paint in old houses contains lead.)