Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

Leaded petrol, a staple of motoring for nearly a century but blamed for more than 1-million premature deaths annually, has finally had its day. After a prolonged campaign to end its use, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) announced on Monday that Algeria, the last country to sell leaded petrol, had stopped doing so and the fuel was no longer made.

UNEP executive director Inger Andersen described is as “a huge milestone for global health and our environment”. SA, like most of Sub-Saharan Africa, stopped using leaded petrol in 2006. Instead, the fuel industry offered a lead-replacement alternative for old vehicles designed to run on leaded petrol. This is no longer sold, though it is still possible to buy bottled additives for the petrol tank.

Leaded petrol was based on the compound tetraethyllead, first identified in the 19th century. Its automotive effectiveness was discovered in 1921 by General Motors, which found that, mixed with petrol, it made car engines more powerful. It was patented the following year. Health risks became evident within two years, when workers began to die of poisoning.

Lead in petrol was subsequently found to contaminate air, dust, soil, drinking water and crops. In humans, it was blamed for heart disease, strokes and cancer, as well as retarded brain development in children. Despite this, by the 1970s almost all petrol contained lead, before environmental awareness forced a fightback. According to the UNEP, most high-income countries had banned leaded petrol by 1982, but it would be another 20 years before low- and middle-income countries followed suit. China and India phased it out in 2000 and Australia in 2002, before Sub-Saharan African countries agreed end its use by 2006.

Automotive Business Council CEO Mikel Mabasa said on Monday: “From January 1 that year, lead was no longer blended into petrol and leaded petrol was no longer marketed in SA. A lead-replacement petrol grade was introduced for certain older vehicle models that might be susceptible to (engine damage) when driven at high speed and under heavy load conditions. This fuel was provided according to market demand, and the demand declined drastically. This grade has since totally disappeared from forecourt retailers.”

Despite a global ban on leaded petrol, the UNEP said it was still legal in Algeria, Iraq, Yemen, Myanmar, North Korea and Afghanistan in 2014.

Two years later, only  Algeria, Iraq and Yemen still held out. The world’s final stocks were sold in Algeria in July.

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

furlongerd@businesslive.co.za

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