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Leaded gasoline is finally gone — but its toxic legacy lingers

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05.09.2021

In 1921, General Motors engineers discovered that tetraethyl lead could make internal combustion engines run more smoothly and reduce engine knock. For the next 100 years, the toxic additive in automobile gasoline contaminated the environment and endangered public health. As of this week, however, lead has finally been phased out of all global gasoline use — a nearly two-decade effort led by the United Nations Environment Programme, or UNEP, involving a coalition of scientists, nongovernmental organizations, fuel and vehicle companies, and governments, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

"Lead in fuel has run out of gas thanks to the cooperation of governments in developing nations, thousands of businesses, and millions of ordinary people," said United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres in a pre-recorded message during a press conference announcing the phase-out of the "major threat to human and planetary health" on Monday.

Despite the success of the UNEP-lead coalition in eliminating the use of leaded gasoline across the globe, however, the coalition was unable to clearly identify plans to address what scientists say is a continued public health threat: the legacy of leaded particles from gasoline emissions that settle in the soil and continue to haunt urban centers around the world. Countries that most recently phased out leaded gasoline will face challenges similar to those in U.S. cities, where researchers have found that residents of highly trafficked urban centers are exposed to lead particles in the soil that are resuspended into the atmosphere during the summer and fall, particularly during hot, dry weather.

"The same patterns that we were seeing of soil lead contamination in [U.S.] urban areas is likely to have occurred internationally in every city which has used leaded gasoline," Mark Laidlaw, a geologist and environmental scientist who has conducted extensive studies on lead exposure in the U.S., told Grist.

Laidlaw's studies have shown that the soils in older urban areas remain highly contaminated by lead due largely to leaded gasoline emissions, leaded paint, and industrial lead sources. This lead is reintroduced into the atmosphere as soil dust. While the amount of lead deposited in the soil of each city will vary depending on how much traffic it's seen historically, Laidlaw said that these soils remain a major source of blood lead poisoning, particularly for children.

"I think it's a great thing that they've eliminated the lead from gasoline," said Laidlaw, who now works as an environmental consultant in Australia. "It's damaged the health of hundreds of millions of people, but it hasn't gone away. The lead is still there in the soil."

When the United Nations-led initiative, known as the Partnership for........

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