A Slow, Significant Win for the Planet: Leaded Gas Finally Eliminated Worldwide

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Leaded gas, one of our species’ great pollutants, is no longer made or used.

The last country which sold leaded gasoline, Algeria, ceased to do so this month, 41 years after the first country—Japan—made the decision.

It was in the early days of the automobile’s ascension that gasoline producers began to add different chemicals to prevent damage to the interiors of their engines. Lead quickly began to represent the superior choice, which over the next 80 years was shot out through the exhaust pipes of cars around the world.

U.S. researchers were already certain of lead’s toxic effects by the time the EPA was created in 1973, at which time the U.S. began a 25-year phase out. Japan only needed seven years following those initial reports to ban leaded gas, with Austria, Canada, Slovakia, Denmark, and Sweden following shortly after. The U.S. and UK finally removed leaded gas in the late ’90s, after which most countries followed.

“The elimination of lead from gas is one of the great environmental achievements of all time,” Carol Browner, administrator of the EPA during the year 1996 said. “Thousands of tons of lead have been removed from the air, and blood levels of lead in our children are down 70 percent. This means that millions of children will be spared the painful consequences of lead poisoning, such as permanent nerve damage, anemia or mental retardation.”

Indeed the global ban is projected to prevent 1.2 million premature deaths worldwide, and save a total of $2.4 trillion in medical costs for treating lead poisoning, which can damage pretty much every major system in the human body.

A detailed summary of the leaded-gas story, published by National Geographic, claims it took 10 years after the turn of the millennium to convince 107 countries to ban it, but 10 more years to convince the holdouts. By 2016, only the war-ravaged nations of Iraq and Yemen, and the last major exporter, Algeria, were left.

“The successful enforcement of the ban on leaded petrol is a huge milestone for global health and our environment,” said Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN environment program.

“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.”