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NRDC joins UNEP to celebrate global elimination of leaded gasoline--A huge step forward for children's health

Rich Kassel

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

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NRDC Executive Director Peter Lehner and Director of Global Strategy & Advocacy Jacob Scherr joined UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner at the United Nations today to declare victory in the decades-long campaign to eliminate leaded gasoline worldwide.

At the event, Dr. Thomas Hatfield of California State University, Northridge, released an independent, peer-reviewed study, which found that eliminating leaded gasoline worldwide will avoid 1.2 million premature deaths and $2.4 trillion in health and economic costs every year.

This is huge news for children and families worldwide.  The dangers of airborne lead are well-known, especially with respect to lead’s impacts on brain and other development in children.  As Peter said at the event, “Doctors tell us even small amounts of lead can lower a child’s IQ level and shorten attention span.”  In countries that have used leaded gasoline, this fuel is usually the largest source of airborne lead.

That’s why NRDC has worked on the leaded gasoline since the 1970s, first in the U.S. and then at the global level.  We filed the lawsuit in the 1970s that led to the start of the U.S. phase-out of leaded gasoline in 1978, worked in the 1990s to put the agenda on the international environmental agenda, and co-founded the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV) in 2002, which has led the global campaign to eliminate lead for the past decade.

As regular Switchboard readers know, I’m in Nairobi right now, attending the 9th annual meeting of the PCFV.

There’s an incredibly exciting mood within the PCFV right now.  Ten years ago, we were just sketching out the ideas for the global lead campaign, which first focused on Sub-Saharan Africa, and was officially “launched” at the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in 2002.

Rather than relying on international negotiations among UN member states to solve the leaded gasoline problem, our partnership model brought together like-minded organizations from international organizations, national governments, industry, and civil society organizations to work together, voluntarily, towards a shared goal. 

From the beginning, the PCFV had discrete, definable, quantifiable goals.  Eliminate lead in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2006, globally by 2012.  At the time, several dozen African countries still used leaded gasoline, as well as more than 100 countries around the world.

After a few years, we added a goal related to cleaning up dirty diesel fuels – to reduce sulfur levels to ultra-low levels globally (less than 50 parts-per-million).

With these goals, we could create work plans, assign tasks, and measure performance.

Today, as I wrote above, NRDC joined UNEP at the UN to celebrate the global elimination of leaded gasoline.  But all of the PCFV partners contributed to this great victory. 

And today, more  than 185 countries around the world use unleaded gasoline. (Here’s a map of our country-by-country, year-by-year progress).

Of the remaining six, we believe that they will be unleaded by the end of next year, based on conversations with the oil industry, governments, and others.  Indeed, PCFV staff have been working in each of the countries (they have even been to North Korea and Myanmar, two of the holdouts) to help their governments move towards unleaded gasoline.

At NRDC, we know that there is sometimes a big difference between announcing a plan and actually implementing it.  Indeed, we’ve often wondered whether we could trust the statements of a “leaded country” when they said they were going “unleaded.” 

Our partners in the PCFV had the same concern.  That’s why the Partnership developed a monitoring plan to scan industry databases and do actual, on-the-ground spot checks of gasoline samples to see whether the gasoline was unleaded.  

We have two years of data now, and the picture is clear:  in countries that say they don’t sell leaded gasoline, there is no lead in the gasoline we sampled.  And, in countries that said they still used some lead in their gasoline, like Myanmar, we found the lead in our samples.

Another way we know that lead is really out of the world’s gasoline:  Innospec, the only remaining producer of the lead additive that is used in gasoline, says so. 

In its 2010 Annual Report to its shareholders, Innospec stated that it expected to end all sales of TEL (the lead additive added to gasoline) for use in automotive gasoline by 2012, and that their once-flourishing market in automotive lead additives had been reduced to a few countries in the Middle East and North Africa. 

I call that verification.

There is still far too much vehicle pollution in the world.  Cities are increasingly congested, and the vehicle population is exploding in many parts of the developing world.  Forecasters predict that the car fleet will grow by tenfold in the next 20 years. 

Most of those cars will be in developing countries, where emissions standards are generally weak. Dirty diesel vehicles, in particular, contribute to increasing asthma rates, as well as to the estimated 1.3 million premature deaths that are attributable to urban particulate pollution every year—not to mention the black carbon emissions that are accelerating critical impacts of global climate change like melting of snow, ice and glaciers in the Arctic and the Himalayas.

So our work is not done.  More on that issue in an upcoming Switchboard post.

But, today, we applaud the global elimination of leaded gasoline.  As I wrote at the top, this step will avoid 1.2 million premature deaths every year, and will save $2.4 trillion in health and economic costs every year, according to the independent, peer-reviewed study released today.

That’s incredible progress, and it should be welcome news for the world’s children and families.

Bravo to our friends and partners at UNEP and the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles. 

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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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