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End of leaded petrol marks milestone in global development

Pollution updates

The world is officially free of leaded petrol after the last supplies in Algeria were finally depleted, consigning the toxic fuel to history.

The end of leaded petrol, which impairs the mental development of children, will help to avoid an estimated 1.2m premature deaths each year, according to the UN Environment Programme.

Just two decades ago, a majority of countries in the world still used leaded petrol.

Rich nations, including the US and Germany, banned the fuel in the 1990s, but it was still widely used in parts of the developing world until recently owing to it being cheaper to produce than unleaded petrol.

Algeria, Yemen and Iraq were the only countries to still use leaded petrol by 2016, and Algeria exhausted its supplies last month.

It was a “huge milestone for global health and our environment” that marked the end of a “century of deaths and illnesses that affected hundreds of millions”, said Inger Andersen, executive director of UNEP.

The use of lead in petrol began in the 1930s, as an additive that helped the fuel burn more efficiently. It started to be phased out in the 1970s because of its effect on health and the advent of catalytic converters, which are incompatible with leaded fuel.

“One of the most poisonous, most pollutive substances in the world, has now been completely eliminated. There is no more petrol station worldwide, where you can buy leaded petrol,” said Rob de Jong, head of transport at UNEP.

Petrol containing lead releases its particles into vehicle exhausts and when breathed by humans passes through the lungs to enter the bloodstream.

Lead has been shown to impair mental development, causing lower IQ, and has been linked to criminal behaviour, mental illness and negative personality traits. It also has a pervasive influence on almost every organ in the body.

Some remaining sources of lead contamination are still a concern, including lead in paint and batteries. But campaigners say leaded fuel was one of the most lethal because of the way that particles from exhausts could enter the bloodstream.

The annual economic benefits of the end of leaded petrol were estimated at about $2.4tn, according to a 2011 study that considered the effect of higher IQ levels, reduced criminal behaviour and other health benefits.

Certain countries, such as Algeria, took longer to eliminate leaded petrol because their refineries had already purchased large amounts of the lead additive.

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