LEAD Action News

LEAD Action News vol 5 no 1  1997 ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times ( ISSN 1440-4966) and Lead Advisory Service News ( ISSN 1440-0561)
The journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.

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Heavy Responsibility

The following is a summary (i.e. a series of extracts) of an article by Fred Pearce in New Scientist 27/7/96. Text in square brackets by Adrian Hill.

It is one of Merseyside’s best kept secrets. At Ellesmere Port there is a factory which produces 80 per cent of the world’s output of a chemical the World Bank calls the "greatest environmental threat" to health in many Third World cities. The chemical is tetraethyl lead, the "antiknock" compound added to petrol. The plant is run by Associated Octel....

Petrol used in [many developing countries] still contains huge quantities of lead, most of it supplied by Octel. It fills the streets of fast-growing megacities with lead-laced exhaust fumes, exposing the brains of children to a toxic whirlwind. When children breathe in lead, it can permanently lower IQ, damage emotional stability, cause hyperactivity and reduces the ability to concentrate. It may also damage hearing and physical growth . . .

In June [1996], the American government persuaded the UN Habitats II cities summit in Istanbul to recommend that governments "eliminate as soon as possible the use of lead in gasoline". The World Bank says this task is cheap, technically achievable for all cars and could transform the prospects of tens of millions of children . . .

Yet many developing countries, advised by Octel, are resisting the call. Octel . . . openly admits that it is actively promoting the continued use of lead in petrol in developing countries. The company is telling governments that unleaded fuel is only suitable for cars with catalytic converters, a claim described as "nonsense" by experts . . .

The argument over whether lead could be banned from petrol in the Third World as painlessly as has happened in many rich nations is more technical than financial. For many years, car and lead manufacturers argued that lead was essential to lubricate exhaust valves and reduce wear. But recent studies in the US suggest that the extra wear on valves from lead-free petrol has been greatly exaggerated. More important is the role of lead in raising the octane rating of fuel . . .

There are, however, two lead-free ways to raise octane levels. One is to blend the fuel with other additives with a high octane rating . . . They cost more than lead, but raise fuel prices by less than a cent per litre . . . and [they can] also help fuels burn cleaner and more completely.

Another approach is to adapt oil refineries to produce higher-octane fuel . . . There are, however, [according to Octel] fears over the carcinogenic effects of benzene [which can be produced with this approach], although the World Bank considers them less worrying than the effects of lead. Bob Larbey [Octel's' external affairs manager] himself concedes that the potential problems of benzene can be avoided without catalytic converters.

But despite the options for using alternatives to lead, very little is being done. Valerie Thomas of the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies at Princeton University in the U.S. charges Octel with using misleading arguments to discourage governments from taking these obvious steps. She says Octel’s claim that "governments should only think about removing lead from petrol for cars with catalytic converters" is dangerous nonsense. "All cars can run safely on unleaded petrol," she says, pointing out that any wear on valves is counterbalanced by reduced damage to other parts of the engine. In any case, she says, "even under severe engine conditions, all studies agree that 0.05 grams of lead per litre is sufficient" to prevent damage to valves.

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