Leaded Gasoline Use in Vehicles Has Now Officially Ended Worldwide

A refinery in Algeria used the world’s last stockpile of the fuel

An image of a gasoline/petrol pump showing various fuel types.
Leaded gasoline has been banned in the U.S. for decades but was still used in other parts of the world. Less than 20 years ago, 117 countries still used leaded gas. Jleedev via Wikicommons under CC BY-SA 4.0

On August 30, the United Nations (UN) announced Algeria's last reserves of leaded gasoline had officially been emptied in July 2021, marking the global end of leaded fuel use in vehicles, according to a statement. Officials say the end of leaded petrol use will prevent more than 1.2 million premature deaths per year, and it's an important step toward improving air pollution levels around the world, reports Helena Horton for the Guardian.

Leaded gasoline has been banned in the United States for decades, but less than 20 years ago, 117 countries still used leaded gas. Many nations in sub-Saharan Africa and other low-income countries relied on the fuel, which can cause a suite of health problems throughout the entire body, reports Molly Taft for Gizmodo. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the fuel is linked to causing health issues from heart disease, high blood pressure, strokes, kidney disease and reduced fertility. The chemical also easily pollutes air, soil, and water, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The UN formed a coalition called Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV) in 2002 to rid the world of leaded gasoline. The group campaigned to persuade consumers to pay more for safer, yet pricier unleaded fuels, reports Camila Domonoske for NPR.

"The successful enforcement of the ban on leaded petrol is a huge milestone for global health and our environment," says Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN's Environmental Programme, in a statement. "Overcoming a century of deaths and illnesses that affected hundreds of millions and degraded the environment worldwide, we are invigorated to change humanity's trajectory for the better through an accelerated transition to clean vehicles and electric mobility."

Leaded gasoline was invented in the 1920s by General Motors engineer Thomas Midgley Jr. During this time, automotive manufactures were searching for a chemical that would reduce engine knock. Midgley Jr. added tetraethyl lead, also known as TEL, to gasoline, which effectively silenced noisy engines. TEL could achieve this noise reduction by raising the fuel's combustibility or octane levels. However, TEL was so toxic that if it were to be absorbed by the skin, it would result in lead poisoning immediately—and manufacturers knew this from the start, Gizmodo reports. Ethanol has since replaced TEL as a safer gasoline additive to achieve the same purpose, per NPR.

Concerns of the gasoline's toxicity were first raised in 1924 when 15 refinery workers in Ohio and New Jersey died of suspected lead poisoning. However, it was not until the 1960s and 1970s that mounting evidence of health issues related to lead poisoning were finally acknowledged at a national level.

Those most affected by lead exposure are children who are more sensitive to the chemical, even in tiny amounts. Leaded gasoline has been linked to behavioral issues and learning disorders in children, per Gizmodo. Prolonged low-level lead exposures impact every system in the human body. Lead is still found in households in some paints, batteries, and pipes used for drinking water in certain areas.

The Clean Air Act was passed in 1970, which is the same year the EPA formed. By 1973, the EPA began an effort to phase out leaded gasoline, NPR reports. By the mid-1980s, gasoline for vehicles used in the U.S. was primarily unleaded, but leaded gas was not entirely prohibited or phased out until 1996, per NPR. Many high-income countries followed suit, but leaded gasoline was still widely used at the start of the new millennium in low- and middle-income countries.

While cars are no longer guzzling away leaded gasoline, the aviation industry still uses Avgas, a type of fuel that contains lead, reports Jeevan Ravindran for CNN. According to CNN, the shift away from leaded gas has created a greater reliance on diesel—another fuel that can be hazardous to the environment and human health.

With leaded fuel no longer used in vehicles, the UN plans on pushing towards phasing out fossil fuels in cars and working towards mandating the use of cleaner fuels, the Guardian reports.

"We urge these same stakeholders to take inspiration from this enormous achievement to ensure that now that we have cleaner fuels, we also adopt cleaner vehicles standards globally – the combination of cleaner fuels and vehicles can reduce emissions by more than 80 percent," Andersen explains in a statement.