On 9 December 1921 at a General Motors laboratory in Dayton, Ohio, chemists poured a teaspoonful of a compound called tetraethyl lead into a spasming motor.
They were hoping to stop what’s known as ‘knock’ – the wild and potentially engine-destroying vibrations that come from burning low-grade petrol.
Almost immediately after adding the tetraethyl lead, the motor began to “purr”, recounts Sharon Bertsch McGrayne in her book Prometheans in the Lab.
And so leaded petrol was born.
In the months to come, the fuel would be hailed as a breakthrough, one that would power a new generation of cars, planes and motorcycles.
There was just one problem: leaded exhaust is toxic. As leaded fuel spread to every corner of the world, it was followed by epidemics of heart disease, cancer, stroke and, most vividly, developmental delays in children.
“Leaded petrol was a huge mistake from the start, even if people may not have known it at the time,” said Rob De Jong, the head of sustainable mobility at the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). “The world would be dealing with the consequences for a century.”
Today that toxic legacy officially came to an end. At a press conference in Nairobi, Kenya, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) announced the last country to use leaded petrol, Algeria, had phased out the fuel. For the first time since 1923, no driver on the planet will be legally able to fill their tank with lead-infused petrol.
“The successful enforcement of the ban on leaded petrol is a huge milestone for global health and our environment,” said UNEP Executive Director Inger Andersen.
The announcement followed a two-decade-long campaign, led by UNEP, to help the world abandon leaded fuel. The drive, part of the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, used a mix of science, public education, policy work and shame to score a stunning environmental victory. Estimates have found that every year, leaded fuel bans save more than 1.2 million lives while helping the global economy avoid $2.4 trillion in healthcare expenses and other costs.
“I think this may be the single biggest success story in the environmental field,” said Michael Walsh, the former head of motor vehicle pollution control programmes with the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency.
The toxic history of lead
Lead has long been known to be toxic. Ancient Romans were aware it could cause madness and death, though that didn’t stop them from using it in pipes, paints, cosmetics and as a wine sweetener.
In the 17th century, French nobility routinely poisoned familial rivals with lead, earning it the nickname poudre de la succession, or inheritance powder.
But for the burgeoning automotive industry in the 1920s, lead was a prayer answered. It was a cheap way to raise the octane level of fuel, allowing a smoother burn and ending the problem of “knock”, which could damage engines.
But not long after leaded petrol went on sale, workers at tetraethyl lead factories began to die: two perished in Ohio, four in Delaware, five in New Jersey.
The inventor of leaded petrol, Thomas Midgely, who had a habit of smearing tetraethyl lead on his hands to prove it was safe, would come down with a severe case of lead poisoning, McGrayne wrote in her book.
Despite its toxic origins, leaded fuel would spread like wildfire through the 1970s, reaching petrol pumps in every country on Earth.
As it did, its impact on human health became clear. As early as the 1950s researchers realized that leaded exhaust was toxic and, in the decades to come it would be linked to high blood pressure, kidney failure, anaemia, blindness, infertility and other disorders.
But it was a 1979 study by American paediatrician Herbert Needleman that would galvanize a global movement against leaded fuel. Analyzing the lead content in the teeth of schoolchildren, Needleman found the chemical robbed kids of IQ points and caused a host of behavioural problems.
Over the next two decades, dozens of countries – from Japan to Germany, to the United States – would abandon leaded gas. But the fuel remained entrenched in many places, including much of the developing world.
The partnership begins
In 2002, at the United Nations-backed World Summit on Sustainable Development in South Africa, a group of environmentalists, scientists, government officials and business leaders came together to form the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles. Its goal: stamp out leaded petrol
The alliance thrust together clean air campaigners and oil industry executives – two groups who in the past had gone toe-to-toe over other emissions standards.
“This type of partnership had never been tried before,” recalled De Jong, one of its architects. “Some people said it would never work.”
Some founding members were angered that decades after being phased out in rich countries like the United States, leaded petrol was still being sold in poor ones.
“They were getting the dirtiest fuel. It was very frustrating,” said Walsh, the former EPA official who is now a consultant. “The people that were most vulnerable were getting poisoned.”
At the time, leaded petrol was still being used in 117 countries, including all of Africa, where it was having a devastating effect in fast-growing cities, like Lagos, Cairo, and Nairobi, said De Jong.
The focus on Africa
The media had begun to catalogue the toxic trail of the fuel, which provided the partnership with an opening. Spearheaded by De Jong and a team of 15 UNEP staffers, the alliance launched a multi-pronged campaign to get Africa off leaded petrol.
It helped governments update air pollution standards, many of which dated to colonial times. It published a study to debunk the urban legend that unleaded fuel would damage engines. It funded blood testing in places like Ghana and Kenya, which found dangerously elevated levels of lead in children’s blood.
Using what De Jong described as a “market approach”, UNEP staffers also lobbied petrol-importing countries to buy their fuel from the global market if local producers refused to churn out unleaded petrol.
Finally, partnership members, which included oil engineers, provided “boutique solutions” that allowed African refineries to switch over to unleaded fuel, said Rob Cox, the technical director of IPIECA, an oil and gas industry association specializing in environmental and social issues.
“Bit by bit, we broke down the barriers,” said Cox. “As we went through it, we suddenly became conscious that what we were doing was really special.”
Progress was fast. By 2006 all of Sub-Saharan Africa was lead free, an accomplishment the Washington Post called an unheralded success of international environmental diplomacy.
It also ushered in a new era of regional cooperation in places like East Africa, said Wanjiku Manyara, a founding member of the partnership and the Executive Director of the Petroleum Institute of East Africa.
The elimination of leaded petrol showed “Africa has the power to demand clean fuels from suppliers,” said Manyara. “It raised the bar ensuring that the dumping of poor-quality fuels cannot take place.”
In the trenches
While success in Sub-Saharan Africa was quick, the rest of the world would prove to be a slog.
It would take 15 years to persuade the remaining countries – which were clustered in North Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Eastern Asia – to abandon leaded fuel.
In some of those places, the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles faced stiff resistance from the world’s last remaining maker of tetraethyl lead, Innospec, which was based in the United States and the United Kingdom.
In 2010, with the market for tetraethyl lead cratering, the company pleaded guilty to bribing Indonesian and Iraqi officials to secure sales, according to court records in the United States and the United Kingdom.
Still, the partnership continued to register victories, including in some of the world’s most isolated countries, like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, where UNEP staff met with officials eager to transition away from leaded fuel, De Jong said.
The end of the line
At partnership meetings, De Jong and colleague Jane Akumu would show a map of the world with leaded countries in red and unleaded ones in blue. As the years passed, the reds became few and far between.
“We could see from relatively early on that it wasn’t hopeless,” said Walsh. “There was a feeling of growing momentum, that ‘Yeah, we’re going to do this.’ In the meantime, we’re helping a million people here and a million people there.”
By 2020, Algeria was the last country on earth where drivers could buy leaded petrol. But in September last year, the government announced state-owned oil company Sonatrach would stop making the fuel and over the next 10 months Algeria decontaminated its storage facilities and distribution networks. In July, the government confirmed that service stations were no longer selling leaded petrol, 99 years and seven months after its invention.
“It was a proud moment for the sustainable mobility team and partners,” said UNEP’s Akumu, referring to the unit leading the campaign against leaded fuel. “We joked that we could now put in our retirement papers.”
There was no popping of champagne, though. “It was more like ‘Finally we’re done’,” said De Jong laughing.
In all, the partnership helped 86 countries wean themselves off leaded fuel.
“It was a sweet spot,” said Cox, a former oil industry engineer who is set to retire this fall. “The timing was right. The people were right. It is something that has effected me.”
The phasing out of leaded petrol has had a profound effect on the world. A study from California State University found that every year, it saves the lives of 1.2 million people, including 125,000 children who would otherwise die prematurely from cardiovascular, renal and neurological diseases.
Because lead exposure in childhood leads to behavioural problems, including violence in adulthood, the end of leaded fuel also prevents some estimated 58 million crimes annually. As well, it saves the global economy $2.4 trillion in medical bills, lost wages, incarceration charges and other expenses every year.
Perhaps as importantly, it unlocked the widespread use of catalytic converters, filters installed on the exhaust systems of all petrol cars. These filters, which can be destroyed by a single tankful of leaded fuel, scrub out a host of toxic chemicals, like carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, making vehicles up to 90 per cent cleaner.
Hope for the future
While leaded petrol may be gone, air pollution still kills about 7 million people annually. Much of it comes from tailpipe emissions, including small particulates known as PM 2.5 that can penetrate deep into the respiratory tract, causing asthma and heart disease. Ultimately, De Jong says, the world will need to transition to zero emissions electric vehicles if it wants to conquer air pollution.
Still, observers say the end of leaded petrol is an encouraging step with humanity staring down the barrel of another environmental catastrophe: climate change.
“I’m certainly not a Pollyanna about climate change,” said Walsh. “But at least we can say ‘We solved (the leaded fuel) problem. Let’s do something similar. It gives me hope.”