The news has been hailed by UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who said “lead in fuel has run out of gas – thanks to the cooperation of governments in developing nations, thousands of businesses and millions of ordinary people.” This came after a campaign spanning two decades headed by the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), culminating in an outcome which is believed will prevent in excess of one million deaths a year from an array of conditions including cancer, heart disease, and stroke.
“When the campaign began, 86 countries were still using leaded fuel,” Guterres said. “Today, there are none…We must now turn the same commitment to ending the triple crises of climate disruption, biodiversity loss and pollution. We need to shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy. We need global mobility with no emissions at all. We must reform our energy, food and financial systems to create a world of peace that works with nature, not against it.”
Inger Anderson, UNEP executive director, said “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.”
Anderson welcomed the news as “a huge milestone for global health and our environment.” It is patently clear why. As well as the 1.2 million premature deaths averted, the global economy will save US$2.45 trillion per annum, crime rates are anticipated to decrease, and children’s IQ points are expected to go up (as lead exposure has a detrimental effect on such quotients).
The scourge of leaded petrol is a far-reaching one in terms of public health and environmental effects. As Philip J. Landrigan wrote in 2002 in a bulletin for the World Health Organization (WHO), “the use of lead as a petrol additive has been a catastrophe for public health. Leaded petrol has caused more exposure to lead than any other source worldwide. By contaminating air, dust, soil, drinking water and food crops, it has caused harmfully high human blood lead levels around the world, especially in children.”
As The Economic TImes reported last year, “India adopted a fuel upgradation programme in the early 1990s. Low lead gasoline (petrol) was introduced in 1994 in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai. On February 1, 2000, unleaded gasoline was mandated nationwide.” The report came as India transitioned to the cleanest form of petrol and diesel fuel, effective April 1st, with Rs 35,000 crore invested by state-owned oil refineries into upgrading plants – in addition to Rs 60,000 crore invested in previous upgrades.
Improving and cleaning up energy infrastructure is a core component of efforts to tackle the climate crisis. As Health Issues India reported in 2019, “for India, the ramifications of climate change will be far-reaching and disastrous…extreme temperature rises will lend themselves to agricultural devastation and groundwater depletion; increasingly severe patterns of inclement weather; and mass displacement owing to natural disasters such as flooding caused by rising sea levels.
“In a nation reeling from deadly heatwaves, water scarcity, and the submerging of megacities due to extreme rainfall, climate crisis warnings have rarely been any more salient and calls to action never more commanding…This makes it a matter of necessity that we rethink energy infrastructure. India is increasing its efforts to increase its green energy capacity, which is projected to account for half of its total energy capacity addition by 2030. Yet, by 2050, net-zero emissions will require significant investments.”
In 2006, a study welcomed positive effects of the country’s efforts to wean itself off of leaded fun. “The lead content of various environmental components has decreased in response to replacement of leaded petrol by unleaded petrol,” the authors wrote. “In India, 15 research studies are here assessed with respect to lead concentrations in various environmental components during the leaded petrol phase (before 1996), the transitional phase (1996-2000) and the unleaded petrol phase (2000 onwards).
“The Ganga River Water exhibited a decrease in lead concentration from 18.0 microg/l in 1988 to 3.1 microg/l in 2001. In Lucknow urban centre, mean lead concentrations in the urban air decreased from 1.6 microg/m(3) in 1994 to 0.2 microg/m(3) in 2002. Lead concentrations in Dalbergia sissoo tree leaves also decreased from 18.7 microg/g dry wt. in 1994 to 8.3 microg/g dry wt. in 2004. Mean blood-lead levels of children from Mumbai, Chennai, Bangalore, Amritsar and Lucknow urban centres have fallen from 18.1 microg/dl in the leaded petrol phase to 12.1 microg/dl in the unleaded petrol phase. The petrol-lead phase-out effort in India has reduced lead concentrations in the various environmental components after 2000. It will help to reduce the exposure of millions of people to environmental lead.” Fifteen years later, perhaps the world can expect similar results.
Indeed, at the global level, leaded fuel being shown the door is good news. As NPR states, leaded fuel has exerted a “century-long reign of destruction…Now, a century after it was developed and 50 years after its dangers were established, leaded gasoline — at least as a legal fuel for street vehicles — is no more.” But the work is not yet over, with the need to push harder for “better vehicle standards, higher-quality diesel fuel and a rapid switch to zero-emission vehicles” according to Rob de Jong, the head of UNEP’s sustainable transport unit, cited by NPR – in the developing world in particular.