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Global Phase-out of Lead in Gasoline Succeeds: Major Victory for Kids' Health

Peter Lehner

Posted October 27, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Health and the Environment

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Today marks a major victory for the world’s children, and the people of developing nations around the globe.

The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), working with NRDC in the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, today announced toxic lead has been removed from gasoline in more than 175 countries worldwide – representing near-global eradication.  A new, independent scientific analysis shows the result of this achievement is a 90 percent drop in blood lead levels worldwide, as well as 1.2 million lives saved each year and $2.4 trillion generated in health, social and economic benefits annually.  

This achievement is a terrific example of the power of global cooperation. Now, vehicle fuel in nearly every country in the world – with the exception of a handful of nations like Myanmar and North Korea – is lead-free. I’m proud to say that NRDC has been a major player in these efforts, going all the way back to a ground-breaking lawsuit we filed against EPA in 1972.

Lead had been used in gasoline since the 1920s – but it wasn’t until decades later that the dangers of airborne lead, particularly to children, started to become clear. We now know that lead can cause brain, kidney, and cardiovascular damage in adults and kids. Even small amounts of lead can lower a child’s IQ level and shorten attention span. Children with lead in their blood are also more likely to become aggressive, violent and delinquent.

Armed with this knowledge – we knew what had to be done. And the EPA, under political pressure, wasn’t doing it.

When the EPA stalled on regulating lead emissions, a very young NRDC took up the cause. In 1973, an NRDC lawsuit resulted in the first EPA rules to regulate lead in gasoline. By 1978, after several years of battling in the courts and fighting pushback from industry, the phase-out of lead from vehicle fuel in the United States had begun.

By 1991, the benefits of the new rules were undeniable. Blood lead levels in the U.S. had dropped 77 percent. And the United States saved more than $10 for every $1 invested in the phase-out, not only thanks to reduced health costs, but to better, more efficient fuel. The new regulations on lead forced industry to innovate and create a better product – safer fuel additives that performed better than lead, reducing wear and tear on engines and improving fuel efficiency.

But the battle wasn’t over outside our borders. Leaded gasoline was still being used in other countries, some of which had few safeguards in place to protect public health.

In 1993, NRDC took its campaign to phase out leaded gasoline to the global stage.  As a follow-up to the 1992 Earth Summit, we conducted an unprecedented survey of leaded gasoline use in nations around the world. 

We presented our findings to the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development, which agreed to a call for a global phase-out.  The need to do so was urgent. The World Health Organization estimated that 15 to18 million children in developing nations were suffering brain damage due to lead poisoning. Poor families who lived on the roadsides were bearing the brunt of the exposure, as 95 percent of lead emissions in these countries came from cars and trucks.

Over the next several years, we collaborated with an informal network of environmental officials in the United States and other countries, the World Bank, and other experts.  We were able to stimulate or speed action for phasing out lead in gasoline in dozens of nations in Europe, the former Soviet Bloc, Latin America, and Asia. 

In 2002, at the World Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, NRDC joined UNEP and a group of governments, industry leaders, and environmental organizations to form the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles, housed at UNEP headquarters in Nairobi. One of the first goals of the partnership was to complete the removal of lead in gasoline – starting in sub-Saharan Africa, where, at the time, dozens of countries still used lead. Over the years, the partnership's campaign spread to more than 100 countries in every region of the world.

Today, the partnership has essentially achieved its goal of removing lead from the global fuel supply. It is incredibly rewarding to have come this far. But today’s announcement is the triumph of one battle – not the entire war.

The world has been rid of one harmful fuel, but there are others. We now look to clean up the dirty diesel pollution that shrouds so many cities. Our work in New York City has already helped slash diesel emissions from buses by 97 percent, and we continue to find new ways to take our Dump Dirty Diesel campaign beyond our borders.

NRDC will continue to fight for cleaner fuels and the removal of toxic chemicals from our environment, here and around the world. Getting the lead out of gasoline is a powerful reminder of what we can achieve when we set politics aside and work toward a common goal of protecting the health of children and families.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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