LEAD Action News

LEAD Action News vol 6 no 2, 1998, 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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Lead, Cars and Petrol - what you should know.

Many people are aware of the lead in petrol and are concerned about what effect it may have on the health of their family. This is especially so if they live on a busy road or their child attends a childcare centre in a "heavy traffic" area. The Lead Advisory Service (NSW) will answer any questions that you may have about lead, but here are some automotive "lead" facts of interest.

The National Health and Medical Research Council has set an Australian National Goal for ALL Australians to have a blood lead level below 10 g/dL (micrograms per decilitre). For every 10g/dL of lead in the blood, experts agree, that a child is at risk of losing between 2-3 IQ points. Lead also damages kidneys, hearing and physical growth. It causes learning difficulties, behavioural problems, tooth decay and many other long term serious health effects.

Children under the age of seven years are particularly at risk of damage because their brains and nervous systems are still developing. Between 36,600 and 221,620 NSW preschoolers are estimated to have blood lead levels above 10g/dL.

Allowing $5,190 in additional remedial education costs, lost earning potential and additional health costs per IQ point lost, means that the estimated cost to the community is between $303 million and $2.8 billion.

This does not include older children, adults or the cost of even higher blood lead concentrations! ( Source: NSW EPA)


The fallout from leaded petrol exhaust fumes not only pollutes the air we breathe with microscopic lead particles (amongst other pollutants), it is also responsible for adding to the lead content of household dust, soil and ceiling void dust in our homes. Because of their extra hand to mouth activity this dust is a major contamination pathway for small children, especially during renovation or demolition of pre 1970 buildings when the dust from areas such as roof voids or wall cavities is released. Add to this dust, the risk from lead paint that may also be disturbed during works, and you have a typical case of a young urban child - lead poisoned by the combination of sources of lead - paint, petrol and industry.

A recent Public Health Unit study found that children's blood lead levels rise 1 g/dL for every 10,000 cars per day going past their childcare centre. (Cowie study, Sydney 1996).

Every gram of lead from petrol, put into the environment now is adding to the thousands of tons of lead from petrol which already contaminates our cities. So the lead petrol problem is not "going away" we're simply slowing down the rate of further contamination of our children's environment.

Over 100,000 (40%) cars in NSW could be using unleaded petrol (ULP), but are still using leaded. The NRMA recently published an article to help counter the lead additive manufacturers media campaigns which try to persuade people that leaded petrol is safer than unleaded. The levels of benzene in leaded and unleaded petrol in Australia are essentially the same. Overseas examples are not relevant to Australia and their situation is NOT OURS.

(Source: NRMA - Open Road March, 1996)

Check if your pre 1986 car is one that can immediately switch to ULP.

Since 1993 the Federal government has made $352 million from the leaded fuel tax which was levied because of the recognised health and environment risks attributable to lead. This money could be used to subsidise the more environmentally friendly MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether) additive and lead education campaigns. At the moment this lead fuel tax goes to consolidated revenue and less than 1% has been spent on dealing directly with lead.

Old cars would not have to be retired and the new MTBE fuel need not be any more expensive for consumers than leaded fuel is now.

They would just switch to the new product and everyone's lead levels would start to decrease accordingly. There is ample evidence to suggest that the general lead body burden of the population reduces in line with the reduction of lead in petrol. This has been shown to occur dramatically in other countries where lead has been removed from petrol.

Australian children are still dying and permanently injuring their health by sniffing petrol. Although sniffing any petrol is harmful to health, its the lead in petrol that kills or leaves petrol sniffers with permanent brain damage. Transport plans need updating to encourage public transport and reduce the overall need to travel by car. The gains made in Sydney's air quality by the introduction of ULP and catalytic converters are being overtaken by the increase in the number of cars and the distance travelled annually by each car. The amount of Australia's greenhouse gas emissions produced by motor vehicles is 21%. Britain has recently made radical changes to its transport policy to reduce dependence on the car, halving the budget for new roads.

The heavy metal pollution of Sydney Harbour is considered to be contributed to significantly by urban run off, including the substantial amount of leaded petrol exhaust particles which settle on roadways and are eventually washed into stormwater drains and then our Harbour. Sydney waterway sediments have mineable levels of lead and other heavy metals.

In August 1997 the new Clean Air Regulations were passed and leaded fuel can contain a maximum of 0.2 g/L. Unleaded petrol can contain 0.013 g/L. Shell half lead contains 0.1 g/L Australia is at risk of becoming the last developed country to ban lead in petrol. Leaded petrol was banned in Japan in 1986, Austria in 1990, Canada 1993, the US in 1995 and New Zealand in 1996 and yet our Federal Government is considering waiting until 2010!


The lead in air Federal goal is inadequate for dealing with point source or industry pollution. This guideline calls for a measurement of pollution readings to be taken every 6 days and then for it to be averaged over 90 days. The result can be industry dumping large pollution clouds on residents, but as long as they keep the average down they cannot be prosecuted. The State government can turn a federally recommended goal into a standard (for incorporation into industry licences etc) - our families can't afford to wait any longer -

Australia has not revised it's "lead in air" goal to keep up with current knowledge about the dangers of even small amounts of lead in the body. In 1993 when the "acceptable" blood lead level was revised down to 10 g/dL the goal for lead in air remained as it was when 30 g/dL blood lead was deemed OK! - a review was recommended in 1993 WHY HASN'T IT HAPPENED?

In 1994 the California EPA had a proposed lead in air standard that is one tenth our current guideline. The US EPA has estimated that every 1.0 g/m (microgram per cubic metre) of lead in air contributes 3-5 g/dL of lead to children's blood. Our goal is 1.5 g/m There is an Australian National Environment Protection Measure proposal (NEPM) for it drop to 0.5 g/m as a three month average.

Five years later it is well past time that this serious anomaly was corrected.


Only by looking at the whole life cycle of lead can the true cost be understood. Lead in petrol is just one use of lead in cars. Currently 64% of world lead production goes to lead acid battery manufacture and the prediction is that this proportion will rise to 70% of world lead production, which itself continues to rise annually despite attempts to increase recycling. The homes up to three streets from the Boolaroo smelter, near Newcastle, NSW, (where much of the lead for car batteries comes from) are considered so unsafe for children to reside that they are designated "child-free".


Leaded petrol is being exposed as unnecessary. Valerie Thomas of Princeton University in the US said recently "All cars can run safely on unleaded petrol", pointing out that any wear on valves is counterbalanced by reduced damage to other parts of the engine - e.g. lead compounds and lead scavengers in leaded petrol deposit inside the engine causing "coking up", which requires more frequent overhauls.

(Source: NRMA - Open Road March, 1996)

A recent German study concluded that it would cost the same amount as the government currently pays in the external costs of all pollution, accidents and noise from each car, for the State to give "each car user a free pass for all public transport, a new bike every five years and 15,000 kilometres of first-class rail travel" And that was for a new car which ran on unleaded petrol!

No-one criticises the government for "losing money" by building roads, yet some people expect a public transport system to operate with a monetary profit without considering the long term environmental and social profit of public transport.

According to Greenpeace "In the last 6 months of 1996 Australia exported 1.2 million scrap lead acid batteries for disposal to the Philippines, where children are being poisoned by the resulting lead discharges"

In the last two years Australia has exported more than 9,000 tons of toxic waste to India. Only the US sent more. As of 1998 this shameful trade should cease because of amendments to the Basel Convention banning hazardous waste exports to developing countries. However, why doesn't Australia implement the Basel ban now?

"There is, says the World Bank, 'no excuse for continuing to allow leaded fuels in any city'" [Pearce, New Scientist 27/7/96] 'The worlds biggest aid lender to developing countries now puts banishing lead from petrol as its number one priority for Third World transport investment'....


The majority of larger lead particles (still extremely small) will fallout within 30 metres from a busy road. The smaller ones can travel kilometres or even end up circling the earth! If you live on a busy road be aware that lead dust can be tracked into your home, so use washable or hoseable mats at entrances. Use wet wiping and wet mopping techniques inside and regularly wash and dry children's hands to protect against lead dust. Better still read our "Lead Aware Housekeeping" and "Is your yard lead safe" factsheets for more practical advice.

Switch to ULP - even if you have an older car enquire form the NRMA about the possibility of your car using safer fuel. If not - use Shell half lead to encourage its further production. Keep your car tuned - it will save you money and cut down on pollution. Reduce your car use - work towards living without one.

Speak to your local members about taking the lead out of petrol and revising our inadequate "lead in air" goal NOW.

Make an effort to increase your use of public transport or walk as much as you can. Exercise is an important added benefit!

Buy a bicycle and put pressure on your local politicians to increase bike tracks and cycleways. In 1990-91(our latest figures) 640,000 bicycles were sold in Australia compared with the sale of 617,000 cars. Yet bicycle facilities received less than 0.5% of the RTA's $1.8 billion annual budget.

Organise car pools to work, school or childcare or when attending social or sporting functions.

If your local area has very poor or non-existent public transport, complain to your State MP, your local council, State Rail or State Transit. If there is a public transport service to your area investigate it - it may be better than you think!

Don't rev your engine to warm it up in the morning. Drive slowly and gently until the engine is warm. Don't idle your car for more than 30 seconds. Encourage your school or childcare centre to erect a sign outside their centre to remind parents that they may be contributing unnecessarily to pollution and therefore their child's health risk if they wait outside the school/centre with the car engine idling.

When you see a vehicle which is polluting (i.e. emitting visible fumes from the exhaust pipe for more than 10 seconds) report the car number to Pollution Line on 131 555. They may not realise their car needs help or worse they may not care!

Wear a sky blue ribbon to show your support of the Blue Skies Cleanair campaign. Organiser, Gus GULSON, can be contacted at the Link Up Transport Campaign on 9247 4206

For more information contact - The Global Lead Advice & Support Service telephone:9716 0014 or 9716 0132 or 1800 626 086 Fax 9716 9005

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