Leaded gasoline production ends worldwide as last refinery finally quits

Production of leaded gasoline has ended worldwide now that the last refinery has exhausted its supply of the fuel that’s been poisoning the air for almost a century. 

The end of the toxic fuel follows intense diplomatic efforts by the U.S. and the United Nations over the past two decades, the UN’s Environment Program said in a statement. The global ban will prevent about a million premature deaths annually from heart disease, strokes and cancer, as well as protect children, who are particularly vulnerable to it. 

Leaded gasoline was used mainly in Africa and in other low-income countries, according to the UNEP. As of 2002, more than 100 countries were still burning the fuel. The end of its usage globally — the last holdout was the Algiers Refinery, managed by Sonatrach, Algeria’s state-owned oil company  — will have positive implications for humans and all living creatures, the agency said. It’s also a major step forward in greening transport. 

“Leaded fuel is the kind of mistakes that humanity has been making at every level,” UNEP executive director Inger Andersen told reporters on Monday. “It’s the kind of mistake that has led us to the climate crisis, the biodiversity crisis and the crisis of pollution.” 

The poison fuel has caused more exposure to lead than any other product worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Leaded gasoline contaminates air, dust, soil, drinking water and food crops. It has contributed to dangerously high levels of lead in human blood, which causes decreasing IQ in children as well as lower academic achievement. 

“We know lead exposure is a serious issue that affects vulnerable people, especially children,” said Janet McCabe, deputy administrator at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “We can’t allow these effects to persist, at home in the U.S. or elsewhere.”

Tetraethyl lead was first added to gasoline in the early 1920s to improve the performance of car engines; its use continued for decades despite warnings from public health authorities. While the component was banned in the U.S. and many European countries by the end of the 20th century, its usage continued in developing countries for decades after.

Luc Gnacadja, who was Minister of Environment, Housing, and Urban Planning of Benin between 1999 and 2005, called for more oversight into the imports of used vehicles from developed countries into African nations. “Right now most vehicles imported into Africa are vehicles that would be dismantled in their countries of origin.”

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