New Internationalist

The Leaden Proletariat

November 1983

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DUMPING [image, unknown] Lead in gasoline

[image, unknown]

The leaden proletariat

Blue plumes of smoke from the exhaust pipes of cars, motorbikes and trucks have turned many Third World cities into a hell on earth. And in the filthy air lurks the menace of lead poisoning for street workers. Choong Tet Sieu looks at the move to ban the heavy metal from gasoline in the West, the repercussions on the nations of the South and the chances of blowing away the leaden haze for good.

[image, unknown] LEAD POISONING is not democratic. It affects the health of some groups of people more than others. Many Third World countries have intolerably high levels of lead in the atmosphere because the oil companies persist in selling heavily leaded petrol - at levels much higher than they do in most of the industrialised countries. Poisoning from lead can result in brain damage and death.

Figures from the World Wide Survey of Motor Gasoline Quality 1983 shows that the levels of lead added to petrol in the Third World are consistently twice as high as those added to the fuel in Western countries. Some countries like the Philippines with 1.05 grams of lead per litre (gil) have even more of the additives - see box ‘Double standards on lead.’ By contrast, West Germany has had a limit of 0.15g/l lead in petrol since 1976. In Britain, lead levels were progressively lowered to 0.4g/l by 1981 and she now plans to phase it out completely. The United States reduced its gasoline pool lead levels (an average for leaded and unleaded petrol) from 0.45g/1 in 1975 to 0.13g/l in 1979.

The atmospheric lead levels in crowded Third World cities are extremely high. Public transport is often abysmal and the streets are clogged with motor bikes, cars and trucks spewing out blue fumes. Bangkok, with a population of six million and nose-to-tail traffic conditions, has street levels of 6.16 to 22.48 micrograms per cubic metre (ug/m3) about three times higher than the maximum level permitted in a number of industrialised countries. Conditions in other cities like Manila, Lagos, Mexico City and Rio de Janeiro are similar. The US Environment Protection Agency sets a maximum atmospheric lead level of 1.5ug/m3 while the European Economic Community limit for lead in the air is 2ug/m3 (or 8ug/m3 near heavy traffic).

The people in the developing world most exposed to lead poisoning are those who live and work on the streets where traffic is dense. Young children who hang around busy intersections selling newspapers and cigarettes, street vendors, rickshaw or jeepney drivers and traffic police - these are some of the people who unknowingly risk their health everyday in the lead-filled air. It probably would make little difference if they were aware of the risks. Alternative sources of employment are limited.

Most Third World governments are anxious to attract foreign capital. Overseas corporate presence might supply jobs and political stability to the country. So ministries are extremely reluctant to implement protective legislation for their citizens that could be seen as tiresome regulations and a disincentive for foreign investment. Stipulating low lead content in petrol can be one of those ‘tiresome regulations’.

Powerful multinational corporations in the oil and lead industries, by exaggerating the costs of removing lead additives and playing down the health risks, effectively lobby and manipulate government decisions in many developing countries.

Such playing-down of health risks was given a breathtaking demonstration by the house magazine of Associated Octel - one of the main lead-additive companies: ‘Many committees and commissions have studied the issue over the years and in all cases they have reached the same conclusion - namely that there is no hazard to health’ (May 1983).

Not quite so: for instance Sir Henry Yellowlees, Britain’s Chief Medical Advisor, said in 1981 that evidence of health hazards was hard to obtain, not that the hazards did not exist. He saw this as an argument for speeding up the decision to reduce lead in petrol.

Lead can kill. According to the 1983 British Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, ‘lead is... potentially toxic to all vertebrates’. The soft metal is a poison which attacks the brain and nervous system - neurotoxin. It also damages other organs such as the heart and kidneys. The early symptoms are headaches and irritability. If untreated, lead poisoning can lead to blindness, brain damage, muscular weakness, pallor, paralysis, colic, convulsions, serious anaemia and death.

The air we breathe contains considerable quantities of lead. The Environmental Protection Agency of the United States estimates that 88 per cent of lead in American air comes from petrol. In Third World countries where the lead content in petrol is higher, not only is the quantity of airborne lead denser but a greater percentage will be from the car exhausts.

The lead and petroleum industries dispute the idea that much of the population’s lead intake is derived from gasoline since it is found in a host of other everyday items. Lead is used for making batteries, in ceramics, in ammunition, as solder, in paint, for pipes, and in brass and bronze. The problems associated with its toxic effects have been known for thousands of years. The lead pipes used to give Romans their water supply have been credited with a slow poisoning which contributed to the downfall of the Empire.

In 1921 the Ethyl Corporation discovered that the addition of tetra ethyl lead (TEL) to gasoline increased the octane rating and prevented ‘knocking’ or ‘pinking’. The idea caught on and quickly became part of the technology of the petroleum ‘and car-manufacturing industries.

The amount of lead in the environment increased greatly. Lead found naturally in the air is estimated to be about 3,500 tonnes a year while lead in the air from industrial sources is believed to be about 450,000 tonnes. The modern-day American has over 500 times more lead in her body than people in pre-historic times, as tests on bones have shown.

Fighting any attempt to reduce fuel lead levels are the Goliaths of the petroleum industry. Six of the ten largest companies in the world are in petroleum. And of course there is the lead-additive industry. Associated Octel spends considerable resources producing ‘evidence’ to show that the negative effects of leaded gasoline in the environment are small. Often the petroleum industry claims that it is no skin off its nose whether lead is added or not to its product. But since Associated Octel is jointly owned by BP, Chevron, Mobil, Shell and Texaco, it comes as no surprise that the oil companies have a vested interest in keeping lead in petrol.

Indeed, economic forecasts by the pro-lead industries exaggerate the costs of removing lead additives. For example, the Australian oil companies estimated the transition to unleaded gasoline at A$400 million (US$351m). This was in early 1980. The government’s advisory committee worked out the cost to be about A$35 million (US$30.7m) - ten times less than the original industry projection. In West Germany the petroleum industry claimed that reducing petrol lead levels to 0.15 g/l would cost DM1,000 million (US$390m) for modification in refineries. The actual cost turned out to be under DM300 million (US$117m).

Despite the odds against them, the public health lobby and the environmentalists have won some battles. Interestingly, it is the countries where there has been the most research into the effects of lead additives on the brain that have been the most active in curbing lead in petrol.

Even the hands-off-industry government of Maggie Thatcher has been alarmed by the threat to the public’s health from lead additives. Earlier this year when a Royal Commission reported on these dangers and the need to phase-in cars which run on lead-free fuel, the same day the government announced it agreed with the findings. Critics rightly point out that by conceding the principal but not setting any timetable for action, the government and prolead lobby have defused the situation without doing anything. Nevertheless it is an advance.

Australia has been more courageous. Despite being one of the world's largest producers of lead, she has decided that by 1985 all vehicles sold and manufactured should be designed to run on unleaded petrol. All cars sold in the US since 1975 have been required to run ‘on lead-free petrol. Over 60 per cent of the petrol sold in the country is now lead-free. Perhaps the cleanest sweep has been in Japan. Today 95 per cent of petrol sold there does not contain lead additives. All regular petrol has been lead-free since 1976. And the pioneer in lead-free petrol was the Soviet Union who acted as long ago as 1957.

The technology for manufacturing cars to run on lead-free petrol exists. Indeed the two biggest car exporters - Japan and the US - have no trouble in supplying their domestic market with such cars. Octane rating can be boosted using alternatives such as methyl tertiary butyl ether or alcohol. Clear gasoline does cost slightly more than leaded fuel. But the steady use of lead-free petrol has been shown to make significant savings in maintenance costs on the car engines. No-one has yet calculated the social costs involved as’ a result of environmental deterioration and damaged children.

Some governments have decided not to pay with their children’s minds and lungs. Third World governments whose citizens bear the brunt of excessive lead exposure must make a choice. They can opt for lead-free petrol now and improve the health of their urban populations, or they can continue to let people breathe in levels of lead which are no longer tolerated in most Western countries.

Choong Tet Sieu was working on health issues with the Regional Office of the International Organization of Consumers Unions.

Double Standards ... on lead

The amount of lead added to petrol in Third World countries is almost consistently double that in Western countries. Children are particularly vulnerable to cerebral lead poisoning, absorbing lead five times as fast as adufts due to their higher metabolic rate. More lead additives and less efficient exhaust systems on Third World cars expose the children who work the city streets to increased risk of lead poisoning. The table below shows the maximum allowance of grams of lead added to each litre of gasoline (g/l) by country.


Austria 0.15gm
0.15gm (by 1985)
(max) 0.29gm


Nearly all Westem Europe incl. UK 0.40gm


Nearly all Latin American, African & Asian countries 0.84gm


Bangladesh 1.05gm
Puerto Rico

Two exceptions to the amount of lead added to Westem petrols are Canada with 0.77gm and New Zealand with 0.84gm.

All figures from World Survey of Motor Gasoline Quality, 1983

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This feature was published in the November 1983 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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