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World Freed from Toxic Lead: UNEP

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  • Published
    6th Sep, 2021


The World has achieved a landmark global success. It is formally announced by the United Nations Programme on Environment (UNEP) that not a single fuel outlet across the globe is now selling leaded automotive petrol anymore.


Humanity has travelled a long distance of 100 years to stop the use of leaded fuel. The campaign was guided and supported by the UNEP and its Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV). Algeria finally stopping producing leaded fuel, it has been possible to eliminate leaded automotive fuels worldwide.


  • It is a huge milestone for global health and the environment that we have achieved.
  • It is going to prevent more than 1.2 million premature deaths annually from heart disease, strokes and cancer and in monetary terms this milestone is to save $2.4 trillion annually (global economy).
  • It has offered us the opportunity for restoring ecosystems, especially in urbanised regions that are affected the most.
  • It is expected to support the realization of various Sustainable Development Goals, including good health and well-being (SDG3), affordable and clean energy (SDG7), industry, innovation and infrastructure (SDG9), sustainable cities and communities (SDG11), climate action (SDG13) and life on land (SDG15).

Understanding the Issue in-depth:

  • Soon after the discovery of anti-knock and octane-boosting properties of Tetraethyl Lead (TEL), it was widely brought into use across all the countries. It being a neurotoxin has caused a great deal of harm since then.

What is an Octane Number?

  • Octane number is a universally accepted standard that measures thefuel’s ability to withstand compression in an internal combustion engine without detonating (Engine Knocking).
  • A higher-octane number indicates that the fuel can withstand the compression in the internal combustion before getting detonated.
  • Octane rating has nothing to do with the power output of the fuel but simply indicates gasoline's capability against the engine’s compression.
  • Petrol with a higheroctane rating can be used in higher-compression engines, to yield higher power. This higher power comes from the fuel's higher compression and notfromthe fuel (Gasoline).

What is Tetraethyl Lead (TEL)?

  • To solve the problem of knocking of the engine, various efforts had been made and, in the year, 1921 Tetraethyl Lead (TEL) (Anti-knocking agent) had been found its use as a highly inexpensive and effective additive that allowed the engine compression to be raised without the issue of engine knock. It is sometimes also called organic lead.

Why Tetraethyl Lead (TEL) has caused so many problems?

  • Since19th century TEL has been recognised as a dangerous substance that could result in lead poisoning.
  • The combustion of leaded petrol causes the lead to be released into the atmosphere and it not only causes damage to the environment but also to the people who have been exposed to it. Over time, lead has the tendency of getting accumulated in the tissues and various organs.


  • There is a high rate of absorption for Tetraethyl lead by the skin, the lungs, and the gastrointestinal tract. It is later converted to triethyl lead, and the research has suggested that in this form it is more toxic.
  • It gets accumulated in the brain, liver, kidneys, bones and other major organs in the body. It can result in heart disease, stroke and cancer. It also affects the development of the human brain, especially at a young age.
  • Long term effects of TEL include encephalopathy, dementia and poor verbal memory.

Octane Numbers of Fuels in India:

  • The minimum octane rating for fuels as prescribed (Bharat IV emission standards) is 91 Octane.
  • Premium fuels like Extra-Premium, Speed and Power also have the same octane rating of 91, but they have extra additives that prevent sludge formation inside the engine.

Fuel with higher-Octane rating than 91

  1. 93 Octane from Indian Oil and
  2. Speed 97 from Bharat Petroleum.
  3. Lately, India has also started production of XP100- a 100 octane petrol from Indian Oil.

Campaign against leaded petrol:

  • Since 1922, TEL was used as a petrol additive to enhance engine performance but by the 1970s, its catastrophic effects on public health and the environment became evident.
  • Leaded petrol/gasoline was phased out in the developed world by 2000.
  • Despite warnings from public health authorities, the use of TEL continued to be in use for decades. By 2002, almost all low-income, middle-income countries, and some Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) members continued using leaded petrol. Leaded petrol was used mainly in the African subcontinent and in other low-income countries.
  • The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) started its campaign to end the use of lead in petrol in 2002 through the Global Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV).
  • The Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV) was set up in 2002 at the World Summit on Sustainable Development to eliminate leaded petrol globally.
  • The Partnership for Clean Fuels and Vehicles (PCFV) is the leading global public-private initiative promoting cleaner fuels and vehicles in developing countries and countries in transition.
  • The PCFV Secretariat is located at the United Nations Environment Programme headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya.

Efforts by India:

  • The process of eliminating lead in the petrol had started as early as 1994, which got completed in 2000.
  • Unleaded petrol was introduced across India in the year 1995.
  • The introduction of unleaded petrol was mandated in April 2000 for the entire country.
  • India has moved towards other anti-knocking additives which are relatively less toxic.
  • After the lead phase out, Indian refineries took voluntary steps to not use MMT (Methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl) and Methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE).

Curbing on other emission sources:

  • TEL is the largest source of lead pollution, but other sources require urgent action too– such as lead in paints, leaded batteries, and lead in household items.
  • Backyard smelting and unauthorised reprocessing of lead-acid batteries is also a point of concern. The draft for Battery Waste Management Rules, 2020 is working towards making the recycling process a more responsible one, by functionalizing the idea of “Extended Producer Responsibility”.

Greener Future:

  • The “global vehicle fleet” contribute to air, water and soil pollution, as well as to the climate crisis. The transport sector is responsible for nearly 25% of energy-related global carbon emissions and is set to grow to 33% by 2050.
  • Already many countries have started to transition to electric vehicles, about 1.2 billion new vehicles are expected to hit the road in coming decades, and many of these will still be using the traditional fossil fuels, especially in developing countries.
  • The accelerated transition towards electric vehicles and reducing its cost of manufacturing hold the key to a greener future.


 It is only “unified global efforts” towards the protection of public health, which is going to yield results. For that to happen, the global community must be guided by science. We are not done yet, as there are other sources of lead in the environment like the industrial processes or contamination of soil due to past emissions of lead that need to be addressed.


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