Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

It damages the brain and nervous system in unborn children; it causes anaemia, kidney failure, depression, high blood pressure and reproductive dysfunction in adults; and it turns people into criminals. It pollutes crops, water and the atmosphere, and has been blamed for over 1-million premature deaths a year. With all this knowledge at hand, how did it take nearly a century to halt the production and use of leaded petrol?

With great fanfare, the UN Environment Programme (Unep) this week hailed the success of a campaign by the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, which it leads, to eliminate leaded petrol.

The campaign lasted nearly 20 years, yet the danger to health has been known almost as long as the fuel has existed. The ancient Romans realised lead was toxic. So it should have been no surprise that, soon after General Motors researchers discovered in 1921 that the chemical compound tetraethyllead made engines more powerful when added to petrol, people began dying.

At first it was workers in the motor and fuel industries who succumbed to poisoning from the additive, which was used because it increased compression ratios. As the number of vehicles on roads increased, growing into new markets around the world, victims and complaints diversified.

Unep paints a terrifying picture of the potential effects of lead poisoning. They include blindness, hallucinations, slurred speech, kidney failure, convulsions, loss of co-ordination, sperm dysfunction, pregnancy complications, decreased libido, depression, memory loss, headaches, personality changes, anaemia and nausea. These are fewer than half the total number of health impacts.

A Unep report says: “Lead exposure in childhood appears to have long-lasting negative effects on mental health and personality in adulthood. The higher a person’s blood-lead levels at age 11, the more likely they are to show signs of mental illness and difficult personality traits by age 38.”

Studies also found evidence of higher rates of violent crime in US cities like Chicago, where leaded-petrol pollution was particularly high. In the 1990s, after leaded petrol was banned, those rates dropped dramatically. One study linked 56% of this drop to a decrease in children’s brain poisoning with the decrease in leaded petrol fumes after the passing of clean-air legislation.

Unep says: “Other researchers have found similar links between lead water pipes and urban homicide.”

For many years, of course, leaded was the only petrol available. Unep implies that motor and oil companies made little effort to improve it during the first half of the 20th century, despite rising evidence of its ill effects.

The report says these industries funded all health studies until the early 1960s, before independent investigations began highlighting the risks. However, it took another decade before governments insisted on changes. The advent of unleaded fuels finally offered an alternative.

As global environmental issues took centre stage, the transition accelerated. By 1982s, most high-income countries had banned leaded petrol. They had the advantage of high-turnover vehicle markets, where lead-dependent engines were quickly phased out of the system.

But for developing countries, like SA, where millions of old vehicles remained in use, and where the costs of upgrading refineries could not be so easily borne, it was more complicated. It was not until 2006 that SA, along with the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa, finally phased out leaded petrol.

Even then, recalls Automotive Business Council CEO Mikel Mabasa, SA fuel companies continued to offer lead-replacement petrol, containing artificial additives, for old vehicles with lead-reliant engines. This, too, was finally phased out, though motorists could still buy bottled additive to pour into their tanks.

By 2014, only a few war-torn and isolated countries still allowed the use of leaded petrol: Algeria, Iraq, Yemen, Myanmar, North Korea and Afghanistan. By this year, only Algeria held out. Now it, too, has moved wholly to unleaded petrol; its last leaded supplies were sold in July. There are undoubtedly stocks still hoarded in some countries but, to all intents and purposes, the days of leaded petrol are over.

Unep says the fuel, in its “heyday”, was responsible each year for 1.1-million premature adult deaths, 125,000 child deaths, 58.7-million crimes and economic losses of US$2.44-trillion. It won’t be missed.

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