Leaded gasoline is gone, but lead pollution can linger for a very long time, Auto News, ET Auto
As one scientist studying lead poisoning in children noted: “It took two years to put lead in gasoline and 60 years to get rid of it.” The consensus around the unacceptable threat of lead fuels to human health has been hard won, resulting in a long struggle between scientists, regulators and industry. In a recent ray of good news, it looks like the world has finally turned a corner on the use of this toxic chemical in fuel.
The use of lead in fuel dates back to the 1920s, when tetraethyl lead was added to gasoline to reduce engine knock. From 1970 to the turn of the century, it is estimated that around 140,000 tonnes of lead were released into the atmosphere through tailpipes in the UK. Since 1999, the use of lead in fuels has been banned.
Phasing out lead has proven more difficult in low-income countries, especially Algeria – the last hurdle. But since July 2021, the world has officially phased out leaded fuel according to the UN, which means it is no longer sold for cars and trucks all over the world.
Although leaded petrol has not been seen in pump stations in the UK this century, lead pollution is proving to be a persistent threat. A recent study showed that lead persisted in airborne dust collected in London between 2014 and 2018, almost two decades after the metal’s tailpipe emissions ended.
The lead content in this study was measured in particles collected either at the side of the road or at roof height. The chemical footprint closely matched that of road dust and topsoil, suggesting that the contaminated soil acts as a reservoir for 20-year-old lead pollution, which is continually returned to the atmosphere when it is released. disturbed. The fact that lead found at street and building level shares the same chemical signature suggests that lead air pollution is fairly well mixed across London.
While the world can rejoice in the end of the era of leaded fuels, how long can we expect to face its consequences?
How lead pollution affects our health
Lead does not biodegrade and disappear over time. It can stay in soils for thousands of years, where it can be returned to the atmosphere.
It should be noted that today’s air concentrations of less than 10 nanograms per cubic meter are miniscule compared to the average of over 1,000 in the 1960s. But there is strong clinical evidence that even low exposure to lead can affect brain and nervous system development in children, leading to impaired cognitive function, attention and behavior problems. No safe levels for lead in children have been identified, and air is only one source – it can linger in old pipes, toys and paints.
As car travel took off at the turn of the 20th century, the urge to sell the freedom and convenience of private transportation to more and more people took precedence over public health concerns related to leaded fuel, despite the high-profile deaths of five oil refinery workers in the United States in 1924. It has also been suggested that public health scientists were complicit in the concealment of the risks. Later, industry-sponsored science further muddied the waters.
Today, the successful eradication of leaded fuel can be seen as a political triumph. Children’s health, in particular, is likely to be the biggest beneficiary. Further research in several US cities has confirmed the links between residual lead pollution in soils and the presence of the toxic chemical in blood samples taken from children.
With urgent action needed now on climate change, another global crisis, the story of leaded fuel highlights a lingering conundrum. What is the price to pay for progress?
(This article is syndicated by PTI of The Conversation)