Leaded gasoline is no longer used in any country in the world. Algeria was indeed the last state to use this fuel. The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) hails a major milestone that will save more than 1.2 million lives each year.
Lead is a metal found mainly in the earth’s crust. It offers a low melting point and can be easily combined with other metals to form alloys. This is the reason why humans have used it in different forms for millennia. In the 1920s, General Motors (GE) finally discovered that adding a lead compound (tetraethyl) to gasoline improved the performance of its engines. Its use was then widespread, despite the devastating effects of lead on human health which, at the time, were already known.
Indeed, the use of lead has been linked to many diseases. At high exposure, it can indeed cause colic, abdominal pain, but also lead to encephalopathies, neuropathies and death in adults and children. Lead also affects blood pressure, the central nervous system, kidney function in adults, and child reproduction and development. From an environmental standpoint, lead has also polluted the air, dust, soil and drinking water for much of the last century.
A long fight
Until the 1970s, almost all gasoline offered in the world contained lead. The UN then established partnerships to end its use. Rich countries, starting with the United States, were the first to phase it out. From the 1980s, “unleaded”, formerly more expensive, then became the norm. Other countries took longer. North Korea, Afghanistan and Myanmar, for example, stopped selling leaded fuel in 2016. More recently, only Algeria remained. Now, the era of leaded gasoline is officially over.
The UN estimates that ending the use of leaded gasoline will prevent more than 1.2 million premature deaths each year, increase children’s IQ points and save nearly 3,000 billion dollars for the global economy. Its elimination will also support the restoration of ecosystems, especially urban ones.
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Now the next challenge will be to phase out fossil fuels. In this sense, progress is being made.
In France, the deputies voted in June 2019 to end the sale of cars using carbonaceous fossil fuels by 2040. Others are more ambitious. A few months ago, Gavin Newsom, the Democratic Governor of California, in fact signed an aggressive ordinance stressing that new passenger vehicles equipped with a diesel or gasoline engine cannot be sold in the state as of 2035. Au United Kingdom, Boris Johnson has also just signed the end of new petrol and diesel vehicles in 2030.