The Secret History of Lead
Lead for the Poor
The sad, bitter fruit of Ethyl's and Octel's missionary work on behalf of leaded gasoline lies in its prevalence in the Third World today. Given the current state of knowledge regarding the hazards of lead, this constitutes a particularly egregious example of environmental racism. While more than 80 percent of the heaviest lead-using countries today are low income, 70 percent of low lead users (those that have phased out lead or allow only very low levels) are high income. While Americans cruise their freeways burning exclusively unleaded gasoline, as of 1996, 93 percent of all gasoline sold in Africa contained lead, 94 percent in the Middle East, 30 percent in Asia and 35 percent in Latin America.
According to the World Bank, 1.7 billion urbanites in developing nations are in danger of lead poisoning, including neurological damage, high blood pressure and heart disease from airborne lead, 90 percent of which is attributable to leaded gasoline. Excessive exposure to lead causes 200,000-500,000 cases of hypertension in the Third World, with 400 deaths per year attributable to lead exposure in the late eighties. In Mexico City, one of the world's most polluted (and populous) cities, 4 million cars pump an estimated 32 tons of lead each day into the air. In Jakarta, one and a half tons enters the atmosphere every twenty-four hours. A research scientist with the Canadian National Water Research Institute performed roadside-dust analyses in Nigeria that revealed as much as 6,000 parts per million of lead. In the United States, lead dust is considered hazardous to children at 600 ppm [see chart in printed issue].
In Alexandria, Egypt, where gas is heavily leaded, concentrations of TEL and air-lead levels are often double the European Union's recommended level, and traffic controllers have been found to suffer central nervous system dysfunction. In Cairo more than 800 infants die annually because of maternal exposure to lead. Daytime air-lead levels in Buenos Aires have been measured at 3.9 grams per cubic meter versus the twenty-four-hour EU limit of 1 gram per cubic meter.
The continued use of TEL is especially troubling in light of the fact that the Third World's car population is multiplying rapidly, a situation that will only intensify if multinational automobile manufacturers have their way. Although the Chinese government has recently expressed its intention to remove lead from its fuel, other nations that haven't are already seeing vehicular population explosions like that predicted for China.
Prodded by Western lead manufacturers, some countries have even allowed the lead content in their gasoline to be increased. Although it has since moved toward deleading its gasoline, India, for instance, more than doubled the amount of lead permitted in its gasoline (from 0.22 to 0.56 grams per liter) during the seventies and eighties; in Uganda, the number soared from 0.58 to 0.84 grams per liter, higher than was ever typical in the West. Never known for their philanthropy, refiners in poorer nations are disinclined to upgrade their refineries so as to obtain higher octane gasolines without using lead.
Ironically, in the nineties the Venezuelan state oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, exported unleaded gasoline. But it was importing TEL and adding it to all gasoline sold for domestic use--this in the country with the greatest number of automobiles per capita in Latin America. By way of explanation, it is perhaps not unhelpful to know that several high-ranking officials of the state oil company held consultancies with companies that sell lead additives to the country. Among the consequences of this corrupt arrangement: According to a 1991 study 63 percent of newborns studied had blood-lead levels in excess of US "safe" levels.
Environmental standards in Third World countries tend to be lax. Where clean-air laws and unleaded gasoline do not exist, there is no impetus for automobile manufacturers to install catalytic converters in their cars. With the rapid growth in automobile use and the growing size of these countries' fleets, coupled with low vehicle-turnover rates (car lives of fifteen years are not at all uncommon in low-income countries) and minimal maintenance, air pollution becomes a much greater hazard. According to the World Health Organization, two-thirds of India's pollution is generated today by vehicles, compared with only 24 percent in 1971; the WHO estimates that 7,500 deaths in New Delhi each year are related to air pollution.
Finally, because lead ruins catalytic converters and fouls modern engine-management computers, leaded gasoline prevents motorists in these countries from using more efficient, less-polluting modern vehicles even if they want to. Where cars equipped with catalysts are sold as new or used vehicles, a predominantly leaded fuel supply invites motorists to either remove the air-cleansing catalysts or destroy them by filling their cars with leaded fuel.