LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News vol 8 no 1, 2000, 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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Socio-political Aspects of Lead Petrol Ban in South Africa

Extracts of Letters from Peter Wood, Safety Chemist, South Africa - Aug 2000

[Note from Elizabeth O'Brien] I began corresponding with Peter Wood after reading his submission on lead core wick candles to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and asked him whether lead core wicks or lead core wick candles are manufactured, imported into or sold in South Africa or neighbouring countries. He posted my message to the local occupational hygiene email group. Peter also did some local research and then began sending some fascinating insights into reasons for the unlikeliness of a successful ban on leaded petrol in South Africa. Here are excerpts from his emails:-

Candle making seems to be a very popular pastime here. The local library has 8 titles on the subject in stock, including some locally published books (in both English and Afrikaans), but all these books were booked out.

There was a very large quantity (around 1000) of decorative candles available at the [local homewares] outlet, in numerous sizes and types. None of the candles was marked either with a country of origin, or with details about the manufacturer. [About 5% of the candles were] very fancy boxed candles in the shape of apples, lemons and other fruit which had wicks that appear to have a metal core.

Anybody who is concerned about the risks of lead absorption in South Africa, should also be concerned about the type of petrol they themselves use. Premium petrol here contains (if I remember right - I was on the SABS committee, but do not have the petrol Spec at hand) up to 4 grams of lead per litre. Since lead-based decorative paints were phased out here, many years ago, the chief source of lead in ambient air has been from the continued use of leaded petrol here. Research by, amongst others, Professor Harald Annegarn as long ago as 1979 showed that ambient lead levels in Johannesburg CBD increased markedly in the day, as cars entered the city, and then declined at night. Further research by a doctor in Cape Town, Yvonne von Shirndling (hope my spelling is right) some years ago on lead levels in the teeth of children, related the levels to behavioural traits and international experience. This was before unleaded petrol was introduced here; her work was one of the motivators for the release of unleaded petrol [in 1995]. Unfortunately, unleaded petrol has not "taken off" here, even though it was until recently priced at 4 cents less per litre than leaded petrol (for petrol 2 octane units lower than leaded petrol.) Since the octane rating of unleaded petrol was raised to that of leaded premium petrol 3 months ago, the price of the unleaded fuel was increased to that of leaded petrol. Unleaded petrol can be used by 95% of local vehicles, yet only about 5% of local motorists have so far switched to unleaded petrol.

Anybody who is concerned about lead absorption, and the risks it poses of especially developmental damage to young children, needs to look both at the type of candles they and others use, as well at the type of petrol they choose to use. We should be concerned about lead exposure from these sources, because the people who are exposed to lead in ambient air have no choice in the matter, and the exposure arises only because of the choices you and I make. We don't need to buy candles with metallic wicks; and most local motorists have no reason to keep buying leaded petrol. Furthermore, with both these sources of lead pollution, the risk of exposure does not stop, once the candles are extinguished, or vehicle ignitions are switched off. The volatilised lead in the air eventually settles out as inorganic lead compounds - chiefly lead oxide - on all surfaces in the area. This settled lead is invisible, and no-one is aware of potential exposure. Lead settles on clothing, curtains, utensils, cigarettes, food, toys, infant's dummies, and all other objects. Lead exposure from leaded petrol or lead-core wick candle use can therefore also occur around the clock, from eating food (remember how many road-side vendors we have) or from chewing or licking any objects that have been in the vicinity of leaded-core wick candles or close to vehicles and busy traffic routes. Continued exposure by breathing can also occur whenever settled dust is disturbed and once more becomes airborne, or whenever contaminated clothing or curtains are disturbed.

I must tell you that I think it will be difficult to raise the issue of the toxicity of lead here, because of the number of other health issues that are getting media attention at present.

Possible lead poisoning is only one of a number of health-related issues that are causing concerns here now. Most of the concerns about poisoning (by a variety of substances) relate to exposure in the workplace, and to substances other than lead. Several workers have died or suffered severe disablement as a result of occupational exposure to asbestos, silica, chromates and mercury. (You may have heard about the Thor Chemicals case, where a number of employees were poisoned by mercury; mercury wastes were imported into the country, and widespread environmental pollution was caused near the Thor Chemicals plant.). The major pollution topic in the media here at present is about the effects of occupational and environmental exposure to asbestos (the Cape PLC case.). Whole tracts of the country are contaminated with asbestos mining tailings; rivers are contaminated; rural roads have been built with asbestos, scores of communities are living in asbestos-contaminated areas, and it is probable that hundreds if not thousands of people die annually from either asbestosis or mesothelioma. (There are no accurate statistics, because many deaths occur among rural communities without hospital or diagnostic services.). Numbers of people living near a large state-owned steel mill have also been poisoned by underground water contaminated by effluent from the steel mill; and near the historical gold mining town of Barberton, arsenic entered the river (the only water supply for many villagers) because of pollution from milling gold ore that contained arsenic. We have also had scares about radioactive waste, resulting from the mining of uranium - radioactive elements deposited in the scale that formed on pipes and tanks used for processing ore, tailing dumps and leachate dumps were found to be radioactive, and several scrap metal dealers were found to be at risk from metal contaminated with radioactivity.

These are just the pollution-related issues of concern. There are many more issues regarding public health: the primary health care system here is underfunded; and many people do not receive adequate care - the infant death rate is one of the highest in the world. There has been a resurgence in malaria, and low-lying areas of the country to the north are suffering an epidemic of malaria that is resistant to chloroquine. Last week, 3 newly born babies were found dead, abandoned by their mothers - although abortion has been legalised here for about 6 years, not everybody knows who to contact; several clinics and hospitals that are listed as offering to terminate unwanted pregnancies, refuse to take such cases because the staff have moral objections to abortions. Whatever one's stance on abortion, it is clear that some mother's see no solution except that of infanticide.

The major public health concern here though is probably the incidence of HIV; in some areas 25% of the population is infected; many children are born with HIV, and many are orphaned as a result of AIDS. AZT and other drugs that inhibit development of HIV are not available under the state health scheme, and are too expensive for anyone except about 0.5% of the population.

Editors will not publish a letter concerning the risks of lead; from the perspective of the editors, they choose the items that seem most relevant to their readers… because crime (highjacking, armed robberies, rapes etc) are very emotive issues now… [and] unemployment is close to 30%. I am involved with a coalition of local community groups who are involved in a fight about dust and air pollution caused by a local gold mine, and… I have helped organise protest meetings about dust pollution and have taken part in a march to activate the local community.

Elizabeth O'Brien responded (in part) with the following email:

My whole philosophy of the way things work is that lead is the perfect model for toxics use reduction. The ban on leaded petrol that is sweeping the world is often touted as the greatest success in public health in the last fifteen years and conversely the wide scale sale of leaded petrol is thought to be the greatest disaster for public health of the twentieth century.

Lead is the most studied toxic substance and the one to appear uppermost on lists of priority toxics (eg lead is priority "number one" for both the US Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry and for the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) [whose member states are the top 24 developed countries in the world].

Lead has led the way in toxics use reduction legislation throughout the world with the first ban on leaded paint at a height accessible to children, placed by the Queensland (Australia) government in 1922. Legislation banning leaded paint is still slowly making its way across the planet and in its wake, legislation ensuring adequate management of the lead paint (that has already been used) is a matter of constant vigilance for public health campaigners.

Yet we are told that lead control legislation is still a model of public health practice. Can you imagine how slow legislation and other controls on other toxics from the cradle to the grave, must be, to make lead control look like a success story??

The mechanics of change in terms of public health policy appear to me to be about raising an issue at the right time in the right place (maybe not South Africa today but possibly South Africa tomorrow) and hitting critical mass. That is, your letter to the editor would be far more likely to have been published had there been other items on lead in the news or among the letters and if it was able to be linked to some other big news story. For example, lead poisoning may well be an issue for the gold assayists at your local gold mine and if you could get a local journalist interested in workers health it is likely that blood lead tests are not occurring as frequently as they should. There is an article that may inspire you, about a gold assayist who had arguably the worst case of lead poisoning in the world. Denver toxicologist says former gold-mine employee of Newmont Mining Corp "is probably one of the most acutely lead-poisoned people in the world" at 250 g/dL. The Denver Post article dated 25/4/00 can be found at www.denverpost.com.

Peter Wood responded:

There is an additional socio-political aspect to the leaded petrol issue in South Africa that I did not mention : the age and ownership of the vehicle fleet. There is a fairly high proportion of cars still on the roads here, that are older than 10 years - I myself have one 6-year old car that I run on unleaded petrol, and one 22-year old pick-up that perforce still runs on leaded petrol. Now I note from postings on the global lead network that you directed me to, that older vehicles apparently can be run on unleaded petrol without danger of valve-seat recession; but this is certainly not the picture available to the public here. Both local petrol companies and vehicle distributors are united in saying that older model vehicles should under no circumstances run on unleaded petrol, because of the risk of valve seat damage. The vehicle manufacturers say that if an older vehicle is run on unleaded fuel, it will be at the owners' risk.

This is a politically sensitive issue in South Africa, because the owners of older vehicles are generally economically disadvantaged people - some are pre-maturely retrenched, others are black citizens who have only one car, that may be 25 or more years old. The major transport mode for urban black commuters is by means of "taxis" that use vehicles such as Toyota Hi-ace vans and Nissan E-20s. Taxi ownership has been one of the major ways some black citizens have had for economic development; the taxis the drivers own are their only source of income. Many of these taxis are more than 10 years old and run on leaded petrol. If the government were to ban sales of leaded petrol here, there would be major political pressure brought to bear, because the people who would be forced to replace their vehicles with younger models, and the people who would be at risk from failed valves, would be the very people who could least afford it.

It is not politically wise to pick a quarrel with taxi-owners here. The government recently proposed that current taxis should be phased out; to be replaced by larger, safer "mini-buses". This move caused a day-long protest by taxi associations that saw major roads blocked off and city centres deserted. Taxi associations are very powerful and militant here; rival taxi groups regularly shoot at each other in the streets, or set the taxis of rival groups on fire. I would estimate that between 150 and 200 taxi-owners, passengers, police and passers-by have been killed in so-called "taxi-violence" during the last 10 years; in the last 6 months alone there have been about 6 incidents when gunmen, believed to work for taxi owners, have attacked "Golden Arrow" buses near Cape Town, apparently because the "Golden Arrow" buses are perceived to "steal" passengers from taxis. One taxi killing in 1994, where 8 people were shot dead, took place in Wadeville, 10 km from where I stay; I actually came onto the scene about ten minutes after it happened, fortunately after the gunmen had already left.

I note you say that China has been one of the countries that has moved completely to unleaded petrol; how they could do this, I do not know, unless car engines there are different in design, and are not susceptible to valve problems. I would be very interested to know more about the reasoning that led China to ban leaded petrol; there may well be useful information for South Africa in these details. Most of the vehicles here come from either Japan or Europe; there are very few American designed models (much like Australia, I expect).

If there is a technically sound way of showing that older vehicles of Japanese and European design can be safely run on unleaded fuel, without additional costs for valve lubricants, despite what the vehicle manufacturers and petrol companies say, there may be a chance to advance a ban on leaded petrol here. Otherwise anybody who stands up to propose a total ban on leaded petrol will stand a real risk of suffering lead poisoning in the form of an AK-47 bullet!

Elizabeth responded:

Hopefully you will find the answers to many of your questions about how it is not necessary to kill off all the old cars on the road. Valve lubricants and octane enhancers that do not contain lead are the key, at:

Older Gasoline Vehicles, In Developing Countries and Economies in Transition:
Their Importance and the Policy Options for Addressing Them

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