"As a scientist studying lead poisoning in children once remarked: “it took two
years to put lead into gasoline and 60 years to take it out”. The consensus
around leaded fuel’s unacceptable threat to human health was hard won,
entailing a long fight between scientists, regulatory authorities and industry.
In a recent ray of good news, it seems the world has finally turned a corner on
the use of this toxic chemical in fuel.
The use of lead in fuel goes back to the 1920s, when tetraethyl lead was added
to petrol to reduce engine knocking. From 1970 until the end of the century,
it’s estimated that about 140,000 tonnes of lead was released into the
atmosphere from tailpipes in the UK. Since 1999, using lead in fuel has been
Phasing out lead has proven more difficult in lower income countries,
particularly Algeria – the final hold-out. But as of July 2021, the world has
officially eradicated leaded fuel according to the UN, meaning it’s no longer
sold for cars and lorries anywhere in the world.
Though petrol containing lead hasn’t been seen at station pumps in the UK this
century, lead pollution is proving to be a persistent menace. A recent study
showed lead lingering in airborne dust collected in London between 2014 and
2018, nearly two decades after tailpipe emissions of the metal had ceased.
The lead content in that study was measured in particles collected either at
the roadside or at rooftop height. The chemical fingerprint closely matched
that of road dust and top soils, suggesting that contaminated soil is acting as
a reservoir for 20-year old lead pollution, which is continually returned to
the atmosphere when disturbed. The fact that lead found at street and building
height shared the same chemical signature suggests airborne lead pollution is
fairly well mixed across London.
While the world may rejoice at the end of the leaded fuel era, how long can we
expect to deal with its consequences?"
*** Xanni ***
Chief Scientist, Xanadu
Partner, Glass Wings
Manager, Serious Cybernetics