One of the worst public health dangers of the past century has finally been eradicated

On Monday, the United Nations announced an environmental and public health milestone: the end of the use of leaded gasoline in automobiles and road vehicles worldwide.

The last holdout was Algeria, which had large stockpiles of leaded gasoline; in July, those stockpiles ran out, and Algeria has now made the transition to unleaded gasoline.

Lead poisoning causes immense societal harm: brain damage, chronic illness, lowered IQ, elevated mortality. Lead exposure in childhood has been linked with violent crime rates decades later. Extremely high lead levels can lead to seizures, coma, and death. Lower levels tend to cause less detectable harm, but there’s no safe level of lead exposure: Scientists’ current best guess is that any lead exposure at all causes harm.

Many of lead’s dangers have been known for decades. Leaded gasoline was invented by a General Motors research lab in the 1920s, and already at that time, there were people noticing that children exposed to high levels of lead suffered devastating health consequences. But Thomas Midgley Jr., leaded gasoline’s inventor, campaigned to convince the world that it was safe. (Midgley also invented ozone-depleting refrigerants called CFCs, which would end up being banned by the 1987 Montreal Protocol; he’s been called a “one-man environmental disaster.”)

For more than 50 years after the invention of leaded gas, virtually all cars around the world pumped aerosolized lead into the air.

In the 1970s, though, following more research firmly establishing lead’s harms, rich countries started addressing the problem. In the US, the Clean Air Act imposed restrictions on lead pollution, and a few years later, the Environmental Protection Agency mandated that gas pumps offer unleaded gas, as the first step toward a transition away from leaded fuels.

The EPA estimates that the amount of lead used in automotive gasoline in the US fell by 99 percent between 1976 and 1989. Measured blood lead levels followed. Crime rates dropped, too. Those benefits were realized even though the lead used in gasoline (and in paint and other consumer products) before bans on its use is still widespread in our soil and dust and still posing a major public health challenge.

In 1996, the EPA completely banned leaded gasoline for on-road vehicles. Japan and Europe issued their own bans over the same time period. In 2000, China and India followed.

How the United Nations phased out leaded gasoline worldwide

In 117 countries around the world, though — largely low-income ones — leaded gasoline was still in use.

In 2002, the UN’s Environment Program (UNEP) launched a sustained effort to phase out leaded gasoline, called the Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles.

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UNEP Director Inger Andersen describes it as a “UN-backed alliance of governments, businesses and civil society,” and its tactics were quite flexible: convincing governments of policy bans, teaching businesses how to make cleaner vehicles, finding investment for better refineries, and in one case navigating a massive bribery scandal, when it turned out that a leaded gasoline producer, the chemical company Innospec Ltd., was fighting to keep its product legal in Indonesia by bribing government officials.

The UN’s initiative saw fast adoption in sub-Saharan Africa, where 25 countries signed on to a plan to de-lead their gasoline in 2005. It made slower progress elsewhere, especially in the Middle East, where many countries had enormous stockpiles of leaded gasoline.

In 2011, a study by Peter L. Tsai and Thomas H. Hatfield estimated the phaseout of leaded gas was increasing global GDP by 4 percent, or $2.4 trillion (counting health savings as well as social benefits from higher IQ and lower crime).

They also estimated the direct benefits in lives saved at 1.2 million a year. The phaseout of leaded gasoline has been the “single most important strategy” for combating lead poisoning, they conclude, “with the economic benefits exceeding costs by more than 10 times.”

And while there’s a lot of academic debate about the exact magnitude of lead’s effect on crime, there’s no debate that transitioning away from lead fuels passes almost any cost-benefit analysis: Poisoning your entire population is just really bad, and transitioning away from leaded fuels is one of the cheapest ways to dramatically reduce lead poisoning.

By 2014, automotive leaded gasoline was legal only in parts of Algeria, Iraq, Yemen, Myanmar, North Korea, and Afghanistan.

By 2016, it was just Algeria, Yemen, and Iraq. And now, two decades after the campaign kicked off, cars everywhere in the world will use unleaded gas.

The road ahead

The end of leaded gasoline in automobiles is a big step forward, and one worth celebrating. But the fight to end lead poisoning’s effects on our world and on the next generation has a lot further to go.

In the US, leaded gasoline in cars has been illegal for more than 25 years. But the lead from that gasoline has settled in the soil and dust, and still contributes to poisoning children today.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracks lead exposure across the country. In 2018, the most recent year for which data is available, it found that in most states, between 1 and 5 percent of children had more than 5 micrograms per deciliter of lead in their blood — enough to potentially cause them serious health problems and lifelong harm. (Children exposed to lead in the US today are mostly exposed through soil and dust ingestion. Often, dust has lead in it because paint in old houses contains lead.)

Worldwide, UNICEF estimates that around one in three children have lead levels in excess of the 5 µg/dL line. While leaded gasoline for automotives has historically been the single biggest contributor to lead levels in population centers, there are others: heavy industry, inadequate battery recycling and disposal, decaying pipes, and lead-based pottery glazes, for example.

In the US, lead-based fuels, though illegal on the road, are still allowed in aviation and a few other specialized contexts — and there’s no real progress toward phasing them out. While they cause a lot less lead exposure than automotive leaded gasoline did, the fact that there’s no known safe level of lead exposure should still give us pause — even the smaller exposures from these rarer sources can cause problems.

The end of leaded gasoline throughout the world will do a lot to fight lead poisoning by itself, but ideally it would be accompanied by measures to attack the other ways lead enters children’s bodies. The bipartisan infrastructure bill making its way through the US Congress includes money for lead remediation measures and lead pipe replacement — but it’s probably not enough to replace all aging lead pipes in the US.

UNICEF calls for “completely removing the potential for exposure to lead in areas where children live, play and learn,” and while it would be a tremendous expense, it would have a tremendous return. Poisoning the next generation is about as shortsighted as it gets, and investment in lead protection is an investment in our future.

Celebrating — and learning from — humanity’s achievements

The UN is frequently criticized as “bloated, undemocratic”, not focused on the world’s biggest problems, and not capable of moving us toward meaningful solutions.

But the worldwide elimination of leaded gasoline in cars is a genuine achievement worth celebrating — and worth examining, to see how the world can use the tactics that triumphed against leaded gasoline to combat the other huge problems requiring international coordination that face us in the 21st century.

The team at work on it has already expanded their focus to the next crucial transition for road vehicles: a move from gasoline-based ones to lower-emissions and zero-emissions alternatives. The leaded-gas initiative “is testament to the power of multilateralism to move the world towards sustainability and a cleaner, greener future,” Andersen, the director of UNEP, argued in a press release accompanying the announcement. “We are invigorated to change humanity’s trajectory for the better through an accelerated transition to clean vehicles and electric mobility.”

They’re also at work phasing out lead paint, another major source of household lead exposure.

The road map that the UN used for the fight against leaded gasoline — a combination of technological solutions that made it easier to switch away from lead in engines, political coalition-building, partnerships with businesses, and a few prosecutions of bad actors who used bribery to keep lead in business — is a road map that can be applied to challenges like climate change as well.

And separate from all of that, it’s worth taking a moment to rejoice in humanity’s achievements over death, disease, and our own self-inflicted horrors. Leaded gasoline and its mass use was one of the biggest mistakes of the 20th century. Ending it is one of the first big global triumphs of the 21st.