LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News vol 4 no 2  Autumn  1996  ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News ( ISSN 1440-0561)

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Why Lead Should Be Removed From Gasoline

by Magda Lovei, World Bank

"Why Should We Care About Lead?"

Answering a question which poses a worldwide health problem, a forthcoming Dissemination Note explains that lead impairs the mental and physical development of children even at low levels of exposure - a fact not understood until the 1970s, when it was revealed by scientific evidence that pointed to reading and learning disabilities, hearing loss, hyperactivity and reduced attention span.

The social benefits of removing lead from gasoline, a major source of exposure in many urban areas, vastly outweigh the costs, says the Note, which asserts that political commitment and well designed policies play a key role in facilitating the lead phase-out process.

Ingestion is the main route of exposure to lead in children, who represent the highest risk group due to their propensity to absorb significant quantities of contaminated dust and soil, the Note explains. Adults are more susceptible to lead exposure through inhalation. In adults, too, exposure of even low concentrations of lead can result in elevated blood pressure and hypertension, leading to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. "No threshold has been identified under which adverse health effects cannot be detected," emphasizes the Note.

Risks of Leaded Gasoline

The main sources of human exposure to lead include leaded gasoline, industrial processes such as lead smelting and coal combustion, lead-based paint, and lead-containing pipes or lead-based solder in water supply systems. Vehicular traffic, however, is the single largest source of environmental lead pollution in most urban areas in developing countries, typically accounting for over 90 percent of all lead emissions into the atmosphere and contributing to the accumulation in the soil and foodstuff.

Various technological options are available to replace lead in gasoline by modifying the petroleum refining process. In some cases, as a recent study of the Romanian refineries shows, a reduction in the lead content may even save money for the refining industry, the Note says. Countries around the world are at various stages of tackling the problem of human exposure to traffic-related lead emissions, the Note explains, adding that many countries have simultaneously reduced the lead content of gasoline and increased the market share of unleaded gasoline. "The total phase-out of leaded gasoline is the recommended policy," the Note says. The World Bank can assist governments to design and implement policies that accelerate the phase-out of leaded gasoline.

Recommended measures include differentiated gasoline taxation in favor of unleaded gasoline, public education to increase the awareness of the health benefits of eliminating lead from gasoline, and other incentive programs to facilitate the cost-effective phase-out of lead.

"If markets are allowed to function properly, the incremental cost of refinery investments and the production of unleaded gasoline are normally passed on to the consumers in the price of gasoline," the Note says. "Price liberalization or pricing policies, therefore, should ensure a reasonable financial return on oil refinery investments, and on the distribution and retail of unleaded gasoline."

WORLD BANK ROLE Regional and countries prepared by the Bank in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, and Central and Eastern Europe have identified lead as one of the most serious environmental hazards, providing the basis for the adoption of policies and the preparation of projects facilitating the phase-out of leaded gasoline. The Bank has supported the Governments of Thailand, the Philippines, China, India, Mexico and Bulgaria to develop tax, price and market liberalization policies to facilitate the lead phase-out process.

In addition, the Bank financed the restructuring of a petroleum refinery in Thailand to meet reformulated gasoline specifications. As a result, lead was phased out completely by the end of 1995. Projects are also under preparation in Bulgaria and Costa Rica to assist governments with the implementation of phasing out the production of leaded gasoline by local refineries. At the U.S. and Mexico Sponsored International Workshop on Phasing Lead Out of Gasoline, in March 1995 in Washington, D.C., Andrew Steer, Director of the Bank's Environment Department stressed the Bank's commitment in supporting client countries by providing policy support and dialogue, coordinating donor financing, and financing projects in the form of direct loans, equity and guarantees. At the Summit of the Americas Inter-governmental Technical Experts Meeting on the Partnership for Pollution Prevention held in November 1995 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, one of the five major themes was lead risk reduction. Concrete project proposals were made to facilitate the total phase-out of lead from gasoline in the Americas by the year 2001.

For more information, contact Magda Lovei, Environment Department, Room S-3007 World Bank.

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