In the 1920s, engineers at General Motors figured out that adding lead to automotive gasoline would give engines a small boost in performance—but it also created disastrous environmental and public health effects. In the decades since, leaded gasoline has contaminated air, soil, drinking water, food crops, and the blood streams of millions of people, particularly children, prompting country after country to phase it out.
Now, the worldwide use of leaded gasoline for cars and trucks has come to an end as Algeria, the last holdout, stopped leaded gasoline production and then depleted its supply, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) announced this week. The official end of leaded gasoline use marks the completion of a 19-year campaign by the UNEP to eliminate lead in gasoline, which will prevent more than 1.2 million premature deaths annually.
By the 1970s, according to UNEP, almost all gasoline produced around the world contained lead. It first had been added to gasoline, as a compound called tetraethyl lead, to improve fuel combustion and reduce “knocking” in car engines. (Today ethanol is used as an alternative; at the time, oil and car companies avoided ethanol because they had less control over its production.)
But evidence of leaded gasoline’s harmful impacts soon grew. It was linked to health problems, including heart disease, stroke, and cancer; with hindering brain development, especially in children; some theories even associate it with increased rates of crime because lead exposure leads to behavioral problems. The end of leaded gasoline could prevent an estimated 58 million crimes annually, according to UNEP, and also save $2.45 trillion for the global economy every year—money that would otherwise go to medical bills, lost wages, and for incarceration.
By the 1980s, countries began to ban the use of leaded gasoline. The U.S. outlawed it in 1996 with the Clean Air Act, though leaded gasoline can still be used for off-road uses, including “aircraft, racing cars, farm equipment, and marine engines,” according to the EPA. India phased it out in 2000. In 2002, UNEP launched its campaign to completely eliminate lead in petrol around the world; it ended up eliminating leaded gasoline use in 86 countries.
“Leaded fuel illustrates, in a nutshell, the kind of mistakes that humanity has been making at every level of our societies. The kind of mistakes that have brought the triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature and biodiversity loss, and pollution and waste down upon our heads,” Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP, said in a speech announcing the end of leaded gasoline on Monday.
The success of ending leaded gasoline use, she added, “provides clear lessons on dealing with environmental challenges.” A next step, according to UNEP, is to tackle the carbon dioxide emissions of the transportation sector, and move completely away from fossil fuels. Even without leaded gasoline, vehicles around the world are contributing drastically to the climate crisis, and an expected 1.2 billion new vehicles will hit the world’s roads in the coming decades—many of which will still use fossil fuels, despite the growing interest in electric vehicles. Ending the use of all fossil fuels for vehicles may seem impossible, but the elimination of leaded gasoline, once the dominant fuel source, could provide a pathway to that cleaner future.