It is believed to be one of the causes that precipitated the fall of the Roman Empire. But finally, lead, the scourge of the modern environment, is no longer used in gasoline around the world. Algeria finally got rid of the last hoard of leaded gasoline this July. That finally ended 19 years of efforts by the UN Environment Programme to get rid of leaded gasoline from being used in vehicles around the world.
‘One of the most remarkable achievements in the whole field of geochemistry.’ That is how leading scientists referred to Clair Patterson’s efforts. The Iowa chemist’s experiments to determine the age of the earth led to another immediate and horrifying discovery.
Leaded Gasoline Led To What Came To Be Known As The Age Of Lead
Working on finding the exact age of the planet, Patterson detected the presence of lead in everything he used. He realized that he was living in the age of lead.
The lead had permeated every aspect of our lives. It was there in paints, glass, pipes, tin cans, toys, and household utensils. But the most dangerous amount of source was from automobile exhaust. Tetraethyl lead was added to gasoline to control the knocking sound in engines.
Patterson’s discovery led to an obsessive journey to prove that the earth had become a giant ball of lead in just a few decades. He traveled to remote corners of the earth to establish that the atmospheric content was a thousand times the natural levels. And its presence in the human body was 600 times.
The end of the last pile of leaded gasoline has been a huge milestone for our environment. The improvement in health and the lower crime rate has led to a saving of around $2.44 trillion, according to the executive director of UNEP, Inger Andersen.
The Advent Of Leaded Gasoline
Thomas Midgley Jr. is credited with the discovery of two of the scourges of modern humans, chlorofluorocarbons, and leaded gasoline. Though other additives could work just as fine, leaded gasoline was chosen because of its lower cost.
Though lead was known for its harmful qualities even then, oil and chemical companies spent millions to keep that fact hidden from the public.
Lead poison is linked to lower IQ among children, an increase in crime rate, cancer, heart disease, and its spread in the atmosphere through leaded gasoline contaminated the air, water, and soil.
Developed Countries Begin Efforts To End Use Of Leaded Gasoline
Sustained efforts by UNEP finally led to the development of vehicles that would run only on unleaded fuel. Years of legal battles with the chemical, automobile, and oil companies finally led to the transition.
But it wasn’t until 1996 that leaded gasoline was finally replaced with the unleaded variety in the US. Other developed countries soon followed in its footsteps.
Finally, leaded gasoline has been stopped from its use as a legal fuel. UNEP’S head of sustainable transport, Rob de Jong had been working tirelessly since 2002 to phase out the use of leaded gasoline. It took a decade before countries around the world became convinced.
But troubled regions around the world such as Iraq, Yemen, Myanmar, Afghanistan, and North Korea continued to hold out for years. Oil and chemical companies managed to bribe officials here to stock huge piles of leaded gasoline and managed to continue with its use.
De Jong says that the UNEP is now focussed on the development of better standards for vehicles and cleaner fuel, finally moving on to zero-emission automobiles. He says that the fight to eliminate leaded gasoline proved that people and governments can be persuaded to shift to healthier alternatives, even if it is expensive.
It has also turned the spotlight on another important aspect of the environment. Environmental issues concern every nation on earth. The ‘two-track approach worked for conversion from leaded gasoline to unleaded for developed countries. They cleaned up their atmosphere while the developing countries continued to suffer.
But climate change doesn’t work in the same way. The issue is global and ignoring environmental issues in one part of the world could affect the whole planet.